Corn-ucopia in the Time of COVID-19




It’s hard to dispute the assertion that the past nine months have ushered in a fundamental shift within our society. We’ve seen quarantining and lockdowns, shelter-in-place and shutdowns, social distancing and masks, re-openings and patio dining, not to mention national shortages of ‘essential grocery store items’…you know what we’re driving at here. We’ve also seen (dare we say it, unprecedented) restrictions in movement and activities – from exotic international travel to our standing Friday night movie dates. And through it all, most of us have been largely patient, living and working within the tighter parameters as we seek a path through this new pandemic landscape. But we may have reached a tipping point. Could it be that COVID has robbed us of  one small luxury, the absence of which could finally drive us over the edge?

We’re talking, of course, about movie popcorn.

Perhaps even more than the latest Hollywood blockbuster, in these pandemic times we are missing the gigantic bucket of freshly popped, buttery-salty, light-as-air popcorn that is so much a part of the whole movie experience. And, in what are arguably five of the saddest words ever uttered by The Washington Post, ‘Public popcorn has been canceled.’(1) So, along with graduations, vacations, live music, book tours, science expos, festivals, conferences, mini-breaks, and ballgames – in fact all of the things that make life worth living – the wholesome comfort of ‘butter-dappled kernels’ is now a thing of the past.(2) Or is it?

According to Laura Reiley, food writer for the above-mentioned broadsheet, ‘Jolly Time, Pop Secret, Orville Redenbacher and other microwave popcorn brands have seen double-digit surges in sales year over year since March as families have sheltered in place.’(3) Which is excellent news for such manufacturers, mildly soothing to consumers, but not necessarily succor for those on the ground – the growers of the corn. Why? It’s a matter of an industry steeped in tradition, the 50+ year assurance of a perpetual market, and the inflexibility of supply chain dynamics.

According to the Popcorn Board (yes, we too were enchanted to discover that there is such a thing), popping corn has been a part of the human diet for millennia: ‘It is believed that the first use of wild and early cultivated corn was popping. The oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in the Bat Cave of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. Ranging from smaller than a penny to about 2 inches, the oldest Bat Cave ears are about 4,000 years old.’(4) Now staler than a bucket of kettle corn on a Sunday morning, we assume.

And the food has long been revered. In a ceremony purportedly honoring their deities, Aztecs ‘scattered […] parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; [saying] these were hailstones given to the god of water.’(5) It’s a delightful image that begs a couple of questions: how does one variety of corn (taxonomy Zea mays) pop, while others – sweetcorn, dent corn, flour corn, flint corn, and pod corn – do not? How does this transformation of yellow kernel to ‘white flower hailstones’ happen? The physics, according to some researchers, is not only complex but also fascinating…

In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, ‘Popcorn: critical temperature, jump and sound,’ authors Emmanuel Virot and Alexandre Ponomarenko note that the transition occurs as water within the kernel is heated to just over 350°F (180°C) and ‘orthoradial stress induced in the hull exceeds the hull ultimate strength.’(6) Within its pericarp (outer skin), each piece of popcorn contains around 20mg of water and ‘the conditions of pressure and temperature just before explosion, only a small part (less than 1 mg) is in the vapour (sic) phase, which means that there is also a liquid phase in the popcorn before explosion.’(7) Elevated temperatures result in the pressure threshold being exceeded rupturing the pericarp and causing the characteristic ‘pop’ sound of the kernel exploding. However, as Virot and Ponomarenko document, this process is not responsible for the popcorn’s seemingly athletic jump. As heat is applied, two things happen to the kernel: as the temperature rises during cooking, it stores thermal and elastic energy; secondly, a ‘starch leg’ is formed which anchors the kernel to the cooking surface. Having reached the required temperature, all of the stored energy is transferred to the starch leg which then flips the kernel in a somersault which, we as viewers, we experience as a simple jump – take-off, rotation, and landing. Moreover, during that time, the kernel’s starch content expands adiabatically (that is, without the loss or gain of heat) to form that pillow-y-cloud shape we recognize as freshly popped corn. So, in short, the process of popping corn involves the physics of phase changes, thermodynamics, kinetic energy and inertia, locomotion, acceleration and velocity, and fracture mechanics. And that’s just for a snack! To see the process in detail, and its analogous human somersault, click here for a fascinating photographic depiction.

With an understanding of how the application of heat kicks off a process that transforms tooth-breaking raw kernels into cloud-like snacking pillows, let’s now examine why The Washington Post sounded the death knell of ‘public popcorn’ and the ways in which this changes life for suppliers, growers, and distributors of the raw material.

In its cooked ‘flake’ incarnation, commercial popcorn is available in two different shapes: mushroom and butterfly. The former is spherical and often used for caramel corn due to its more robust structure, with the butterfly flakes being more tender. But interestingly, although seemingly different from one another, these two shapes can originate from kernels harvested from the same ear of corn. And while third party manufacturers prefer one flake shape over the other, movie-going consumers make no such distinction. Before sales dropped due to COVID shutdowns, cinemas were the main venue for America’s annual popcorn consumption of 15 billion quarts, or 45 quarts per person/year. With sales of 1,145,569,723 lbs of popcorn in 2018, the Popcorn Board (which is a non-profit organization funded by national processors) and a guaranteed market that draws consumers to movie theaters in a dual season – Hollywood summer blockbusters and winter-time Academy Award contenders – growers of corn seemed able to rest on their laurels when it came to supplying demand. However, with Pandemic Pauses in effect, growers are faced with the unanticipated challenge of supplying to a different market. Founder of Misfits, a subscription service specializing in placing perhaps unattractive but nonetheless edible foods, Abhi Ramesh notes: ‘The food supply chain has been disrupted in meaningful ways by the pandemic. Our goal is to serve a pretty unique purpose in that supply chain. Movie theater popcorn has been so stable for the past 50 years — growers could easily anticipate how much would be needed based on release dates.’(8)

So in this new reality, why not simply pivot and change the supply chain model to capture the home enthusiast? The answer, unfortunately, is one of logistics. Producers have typically packaged the product in 50lb – 100lb sacks for -just-in-time delivery to movie theaters. But this huge amount of product far exceeds the needs of the regular household corn popper, and retailers and producers alike lack the necessary equipment to change packaging. Fortunately, microwave popcorn manufacturers represent a market sector that has seen significant growth since the early months of 2020, and this may well represent the snack’s path forward.

According to statistics in Variety, sales of microwave popcorn for home consumption have seen a double digit rise from May 2019 to May 2020, with a new high revenue of around $922 million.(9) And the reason, of course, is increased time at home streaming this year’s blockbusters to the small screen. According to Jolly Time popcorn’s president Garry Smith ‘In mid-March, when everybody around the country was told to stay home, the next six weeks were out of control crazy. During that six-week period, in very round numbers, our microwave popcorn sales grew 40% to 50%. And our raw popcorn sales to grocery stores, which comes in polyethylene bags now and in plastic jars, that business increased 70% to 80%.’(10)

But that ‘out of control’ growth may also be a double-edged sword. Although good news for manufacturers, we can’t help but worry about the oft-cited relationship between any unexpected demand increase and the potential for QA challenges. In other words: the threat of temptation to meet demand by cutting corners. After all, product contamination in the snack food industry is not without precedent. In 2012, Food Safety News publicized the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recall of Popcorn Indiana’s ready-to-eat snacks due to a possible Listeria contamination risk. Just two years later, three varieties of Jolly Time Microwave Popcorn products were recalled due to the possibility of contamination by metal fragments – a danger to both consumers and their microwave ovens, we assume. And then there’s the 2018 case of Great Value Popping Corn distributed in Canada by Walmart. According to the recall notice by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the product was pulled from shelves due to the presence of ‘extraneous material’ – in this case, insect parts. This action was considered a Class 3 recall which indicates that ‘the product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences’ and it is significant that, within days of the Great Value case, two additional recalls were initiated with the same language and threat classification.(11) And then this month Dierbergs Markets of Missouri announced a recall of Arrowhead Mills Organic Yellow Popcorn ‘due to the potential presence of foreign glass material.’(12) Listeria, bugs, metal fragments, and glass shards, we really don’t know which is worse, but clearly these issues point to a failure of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols at a corporate level. In a time when we, as consumers, already worry about the quality and safety of raw materials – corn is housed in vast grain bin silos some of which hold up to 15,925,000 pounds of kernels – in addition to the scarcity of goods on shelves, we certainly do not need the additional concern about extraneous materials in our otherwise wholesome and innocent snack.

Nor do we need, moreover, the concern regarding risks posed by chemicals such as diacetyl, a commonly used flavorant in artificial butter. Linked to a respiratory disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as ‘popcorn lung,’ butanedione or butane-2,3-dione (aka diacetyl) naturally occurs as a by-product of fermentation used in alcoholic beverages to improve texture and in some dairy products to provide or enhance a buttery or caramel taste. Despite its seemingly widespread use, it is a known biochemical toxin that changes the structure of cells and modifies the reactions of epithelial (surface-lining) cells. Laboratory tests in animal subjects have demonstrated damage to airways and the necrosis of epithelial cells as a result of exposure to the chemical.

Which is why, in 2006, workers petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate the use of diacetyl in the production of commercial food products, leading to some manufacturers eliminating the substance completely. However, as an article recently published by the American Lung Association reveals, diacetyl appears to have a new lease on life, this time in e-cigarettes.(13) Enhancing the taste of e-cig products boasting flavors such as coconut, maple, and vanilla, diacetyl and 2 other similarly dangerous toxins – were found to be present in approximately 92% of the flavored e-cigarettes. According to a study at Harvard, 39 out of 51 brands contained diacetyl – a toxin not considered safe on the manufacturing floor but which smokers are actively drawing into their lungs. And what is the FDA doing to combat this risk? The American Lung Association’s analysis is bleak: ‘Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in July 2017 that it would delay until 2022 the requirement that e-cigarette companies submit their products, including all ingredients, to FDA for review. […Therefore] for the meantime, these products remain on the market until FDA begins to enforce the provisions.’(14)

Over a decade ago, the risk of this chemical was identified and effectively countered by those who chose to remove it from use in snack food. Surely therefore it is time to call on the FDA to require that all manufacturers of products using the chemical, step up and find a less toxic substitute. After all, with ‘popcorn lung’ on our minds, our most beloved and ‘wholesome’ movie-night treat is at risk of getting a really bad name, if only by association…

Popcorn – are you a fan or can you take it or leave it? Sweet? Salty? A perfectly balanced mix of the two? And will you be excited to finally enjoy it once again in front of the big screen? Let us know in the Comments!


  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  5. ibid
  7. ibid
  10. ibid
  14. ibid

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