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It’s a staple in just about every American pantry. Microwave popcorn makes a delicious, easy, simple snack, whether you’re craving something buttery for movie night or you want a light, low-calorie, no-frills snack while studying.
According to The Popcorn Board, an organization that brings together companies that impact the popcorn industry and that supports all things popcorn, Americans eat about 14 billion quarts of popcorn, or about 43 quarts per person, each year. Popcorn sales peak in the fall (maybe because this treat is a comfort food favorite, perfect for when temperatures fall), supporting farms largely in the Midwest.
While popcorn itself has been around for centuries, microwave popcorn is relatively new, likely coming into popularity during your own or your parents’ childhoods. So how did we transition from popping popcorn on the stovetop, laboring over pans and hoping not to burn kernels, to just throwing a bag in the microwave and waiting for a delicious, hot snack to appear, minutes later? Here’s the untold truth of microwave popcorn.
The earliest popcorn is older than you think
If you think about the beginnings of popcorn, you may imagine Victorian or Edwardian gents and ladies strolling around a summertime fair, snacking on red-and-white-striped boxes of popcorn purchased from a streetcar vendor similar to the one that first sold Cracker Jack. However, humanity’s love of popcorn goes back further than that. The earliest form of popcorn appeared in ancient Peru.
According to History, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found evidence at prehistoric settlement sites that Peruvians were snacking on popcorn. These researchers now believe that people were eating popped corn kernels nearly 7,000 years ago. Before the study was released, it was believed that popcorn arrived on the culinary scene about 1,000 years later.
However, ancient Peruvians didn’t have access to today’s handy microwaves. Instead, they likely roasted the corn cobs above an open flame or coals. They did eventually improve the process, though, developing a rudimentary popcorn popper around the year 300 AD.
The first microwaved popcorn happened by chance
The first microwaved popcorn didn’t come in a paper bag like what you’re accustomed to seeing. Instead, the first microwaved popcorn was merely a handful of kernels that were part of a researcher’s lab experiments.
In the 1940s — during World War II — researcher Percy Spencer was working on a radar system when he realized that his proximity to the device he was working on, the magnetron, caused a chocolate bar in his pocket to melt. Rightly assuming he was on to something, the following day he took popcorn kernels to the lab to test under the magnetron. The kernels popped, and the world had its first microwave popcorn.
Unfortunately, the next food Spencer microwaved was an egg, which ended exactly how you’d expect. Spencer’s employer at the time, Raytheon, patented the microwave oven following Spencer’s experiments and paid him $2 for the idea. That sounds like a bad deal, but it took decades and lots of money to eventually turn Spencer’s discovery into a kitchen-friendly (and budget-friendly) microwave that could actually be used to make microwave popcorn.
An early patent involved microwaving the whole corn cob
That doesn’t mean, of course, that early microwaves weren’t used for popping popcorn at all — the process just looked a little different than you might expect. In 1947, Percy Spencer, keeping on with his microwaved food experiments, filed a patent for a microwave popcorn popping process. The patent was technically for the "preparation of puffed cereals from wholegrain or grain pieces without preparation of meal or dough by heating without using a pressure release device" … and that’s a whole lot of words to say, "we’re going to throw an intact cob of corn into a bag, throw that bag into the microwave, and let the microwave do its work."
The patent description notes that those previously making popcorn would shell full ears of corn, store the kernels en masse, and then pop them over a 4-5 minute process before seasoning the entire batch. The labor-heavy system resulted in dry, tasteless popcorn. Spencer’s method, however, eliminated the need for time-consuming shelling and was more sanitary. That said, his corn cob-popping process clearly never took off as a preferred way to microwave popcorn.
For a while, popcorn was sold in the freezer section
Microwave popcorn would undergo a few more iterations before becoming what we see today. The earliest microwave popping bag was patented in 1978. Around the same time, Pillsbury started selling microwave popcorn out of vending machines (via The Popcorn Boss). Pillsbury and Act I, the predecessor of today’s Act II brand, both sold popcorn in the freezer section, as the use of real dairy products made refrigeration or freezer storage necessary.
While you won’t find popcorn in the freezer section today, the product is a fond memory for some Redditors, as they detail in a Gen X memories thread on the site. One user notes, "The first microwave popcorn we ever tried was Pillsbury, and it was in the freezer section. Some googling reveals this was because they hadn’t yet figured out how to make the oil shelf stable yet. It also came with a rectangular cardboard ‘popping pad,’ without which it popped very poorly (both unpopped and burnt kernels) … Also, supposedly it was buttered, but it was nowhere near as good as real butter. Kind of tasted like Molly McButter. My dad scoffed at the whole thing. ‘You can get a whole jar of popcorn for what this costs and make ten times as much popcorn. What a scam!’"
Act II popcorn started with Act I
When microwave popcorn brand Act I evolved into Act II, it was a pretty big deal for the entire microwave popcorn industry. Golden Valley Microwave Foods had created Act I in 1981, selling frozen microwave popcorn in refrigerated vending machines. But in 1984, the company created a new kind of popcorn bag and a shelf-stable recipe, allowing popcorn to be sold anywhere, stored in the pantry, and popped in any microwave. The new product was branded Act II. By 1999, Golden Valley Microwave Foods had been acquired by Conagra Foods, Inc., and was producing more than a billion bags of popcorn, making it the world’s largest producer of microwave popcorn at the time.
Today, you’ll find more than just Act II among the Conagra Foods popcorn family, though. Other very popular Conagra popcorn brands include Orville Redenbacher’s and Boom Chicka Pop. Other, less well-known popcorn brands under the Conagra umbrella include Vogel Popcorn and Crunch ‘n Munch.
Shelf-stable microwave popcorn can still go bad
Even though Act II changed the microwave popcorn landscape with its shelf-stable recipe, that doesn’t mean the brown rectangles of microwave popcorn in the back of your pantry can’t go bad. As Tasting Table reports, microwave popcorn can still spoil, specifically the fats and oils, which can go rancid. Microwave popcorn typically boasts a shelf life of around six to eight months. You can help your microwave popcorn stay fresher, longer, by storing it appropriately: in its original packaging and away from heat sources and light. If you choose to store your microwave popcorn in the fridge, which some still do, just be sure to take it out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature before popping.
If you don’t think you’ll eat your microwave popcorn in six to eight months, you might want to opt for traditional popcorn and traditional popping methods, as plain popcorn kernels can last indefinitely.
The first popcorn button dates back to the 1980s
Today, you likely just throw your bag of microwave popcorn into the microwave, press the popcorn button, and come back in a few minutes to nearly-perfectly popped popcorn. That said, things weren’t so easy for those first microwave popcorn consumers, as the microwave popcorn sensor and button weren’t always a thing.
According to a 1988 Chicago Tribune article, microwaves with popcorn sensor buttons appeared for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show (though buttons and sensors designed specifically for cooking other singular food items, such as baked potatoes or frozen vegetables, were already around). Featured on Sharp Electronics microwaves, the popcorn sensors were programmed to pop microwave popcorn for about 3 minutes — the timeframe determined to be ideal after the brand popped approximately 1,000 bags of popcorn. This was the timeframe that hit the sweet spot of popping the maximum number of kernels without burning or scorching the snack. Prior to the button’s release, consumers followed package directions to (hopefully) achieve the perfect bag of popcorn.
The popcorn button doesn’t really work well
Alas — while the popcorn button is easy and convenient to use, it’s not exactly foolproof. In fact, as we covered in a past Mashed article, most popcorn manufacturers specifically tell you not to use the popcorn button. As Parade columnist Marilyn Vos Savant explained, most microwave popcorn buttons are just timers (as the first Sharp Electronics microwave button was). That means while a particular microwave could get your popcorn pretty close to perfect at least some of the time, it won’t all of the time. Popcorn varies, and the perfect popping time will depend on things like kernel weight and humidity.
The good news? Many newer microwaves come with humidity sensors that adjust the amount of time that a bag of popcorn spends in the microwave, allowing for differences between corn kernels. But if you don’t have one of these newer microwaves, your best bet is to do it the old-fashioned way: Wait by the microwave, count the pops until the pops are occurring one to two seconds apart, then remove the bag from the microwave.
There are other methods of achieving a (more) perfect pop
If you don’t want to sit around and count the pops, and you don’t necessarily trust your microwave’s humidity sensor to achieve the perfect bag of popcorn, you may be interested in a Whirlpool microwave feature called the AccuPop Cycle. Introduced in 2014, the setting tells your microwave to listen to the pops for you, then it adjusts the cooking time accordingly.
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can also opt for a popcorn manufacturer-approved microwave. Sharp Electronics now boasts an Orville Redenbacher-vetted line of microwaves. The microwaves are touted as having a "popcorn preset tuned for optimal popping results," which more-or-less means you should get the ultimate bag of popped popcorn each time you use the setting. But, as cool as the feature is, Sharp is quick to point out that the setting still can’t make every single kernel in a bag pop.
Your best bet all around? Either learn to live with the fact that no bag of microwave popcorn will ever be 100% perfect, or get ready to fine-tune your microwaving process to the extreme.
Conagra continues to innovate in microwave popcorn
Conagra’s Act II (or Act I, at the time) was a major innovator in microwave popcorn’s earliest days, but that hardly means Conagra’s family of popcorn brands is done innovating. In 2011, Orville Redenbacher introduced a new type of microwave popcorn bag — one that magically transformed into a bowl during the popping process. The popcorn bag featured a transparent top and sturdy bottom that, together, created a wide-mouth serving bowl you could use straight out of the microwave. Unfortunately, the product didn’t last long.
In 2017, the company tweeted in response to one negative review that the bowls had been discontinued. Complaints included frequent burning, a difficult-to-open package, poor instructions, and a real disconnect with the average microwave’s popcorn button. Still, a lot of reviewers appreciated the convenience of not needing an extra bowl. Maybe someday, someone will be able to bring this good idea to fruition in a less problematic way.
You can make your own microwave popcorn
If you’re not worried about the popcorn industry’s latest innovations, and you don’t mind "babysitting" your popcorn as it pops, you may want to consider making your own microwave popcorn. You can easily do so by using a brown paper bag and traditional popcorn kernels to whip up a snack. The process is inexpensive, convenient, and allows you to avoid consuming any of the odd or hard-to-pronounce ingredients that are often added to commercially-produced products. It also comes with the same easy clean-up of microwave popcorn; once you’re finished, just toss the bag in the trash.
A prior Mashed article explains how it’s done. Essentially, you’ll just want to throw a quarter cup of kernels into a paper bag, fold the top down a few times, then put it in the microwave for a few minutes. Make sure to listen for the popping to slow down, then remove the popcorn from the microwave when it’s popping at a rate of one or two pops per second. Finally, top your fresh popcorn with whatever toppings you like.
Microwave popcorn may carry health risks
Like all processed foods, microwave popcorn does come with a few health risks. One ingredient of concern is diacetyl. Diacetyl is a chemical that gives foods a butter-like flavor, so it’s an easy choice for popcorn manufacturers who want to add a real-butter taste to shelf-stable microwave popcorn.
Unfortunately, diacetyl can cause health issues for those who are exposed to high levels of the substance. Low levels are found in items like popcorn and butter-flavored non-stick sprays, but high levels are found in manufacturing plants where workers produce these food items. Specifically, employees at microwave popcorn plants have experienced obstructive lung disease, which is sometimes fatal. Related lawsuits prompted many manufacturers to abandon the use of diacetyl and switch to other chemicals, but it’s suspected that some of the substitutes, like 2,3-pentanedione, are just as harmful. In addition, other at-home popcorn-making hacks, such as using a brown paper bag to pop regular popcorn kernels, come with risks. For instance, microwaving brown paper bags can cause the paper to release volatiles, which could also pose potential health risks.
Popcorn lung doesn’t come from eating popcorn
Because of the lung-related health issues that have come about due to workers’ exposure to diacetyl, some incorrectly assume that "popcorn lung" can be traced back to eating large quantities of popcorn. However, that’s not at all the case. Popcorn lung is a misnomer that refers to bronchiolitis obliterans. This bronchial inflammation condition is caused by inhaling a wide range of chemical fumes, but can also be caused by other respiratory infections. It can also be caused by smoking e-cigarettes or vaping. The Popcorn Board does mention that it can be caused by inhaling food-flavoring chemical fumes, though, but doesn’t say which food flavorings cause it, or whether or not it might include diacetyl.
The good news, regardless? As of 2007, no major popcorn manufacturers use diacetyl in their products. Additionally, The Popcorn Board notes that microwave popcorn bags are safe and FDA-approved. Most microwave popcorn bags also no longer include PFOAs, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a harmful substance used to create grease-resistant coatings.
The popcorn market is growing
Even with its few downsides, the microwave popcorn market is growing. According to a Spring 2022 press release from Allied Market Research, the popcorn market is expected to earn approximately $18.82 billion, internationally, by 2031, while experiencing a more than 5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). The increased demand is credited to a few factors, including the Covid-19 lockdowns, a desire for ready-to-eat foods, and growing interest in healthy snacks.
That said, while North American at-home consumers are the top group driving market growth, according to the report, it’s not microwave popcorn that will be the favorite over the next decade. The report predicts that ready-to-eat popcorn will account for the largest market growth through 2031. In 2020, the global popcorn market generated just under $10 billion.
However you choose to contribute to popcorn market growth in the coming years, there are certainly a lot of ways to enjoy your microwave popcorn. Check out easy microwave popcorn recipes from Mashed, like this simple peanut butter popcorn.