The Big Picture on Popcorn

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

It’s a question that has occurred to me several times in my adult life, but I’ve never had the chance to ask it.  That’s partly because “farmer” is the occupation of only 1% of the U.S. work force, so there aren’t many opportunities to encounter one.  When I do, though, I’ll dispense with the pleasantries and get right to it:  “How do you decide what crops to grow?”

“Betting the farm” is an expression gamblers use, meaning “to take a big risk.”  Farmers literally bet the farm every year, and I’d be fascinated to find out how one figures out that the best use of his land and resources is, say, popcorn.

Presumably the soil type and weather conditions are part of the equation, but when his neighbor is able to grow sweet corn, what makes a farmer think, “Nope.  I’m going with popcorn.”

Most of the world’s popcorn production is in the United States, and there are at least 6 cities that claim to be “The Popcorn Capital of the World”.  All are in the Midwest, far from Hollywood, where popcorn’s constant companion — movies — are made.

Popcorn has actually been around a lot longer than movies; Smithsonian scientists have found evidence in Peru of popcorn that dates back over 6,000 years.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that commercial popcorn poppers were invented, though, and someone thought, “Hey, you know what would go great with this stuff — moving pictures!”

Well, the connection between popcorn and movies was a little more complicated than that, but one of the factors is what the popcorn producers call “expansion ratio”.  That refers to the increase in volume that occurs when those little kernels are popped; a good expansion ratio is in the neighborhood of 40 to 1.

Why does that matter to movie theater owners?  Because they buy popcorn by weight and sell it by volume, so the higher the expansion ratio, the higher the profit.  And popcorn is a more important income source to theaters than ticket sales.

Ticket revenues have to be split with the films’ distributors, but exhibitors pocket 100% of concessions.  According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, concessions account for about 20% of movie theater gross revenues — but 40% of profits.

By the way, the stuff that makes movie popcorn taste so good — the butter-flavored motor oil they drizzle on it, for instance — adds so much fat that a good-sized tub of it is said to be comparable in fat grams to several Big Macs.

On the other hand, pure unadulterated popcorn — the less tasty version — is actually good for your health.  A study completed in 2012 showed that in addition to its high dietary fiber, popcorn has levels of antioxidants that are greater than some fruits and vegetables.  However, the study’s author, Dr. Joe Vinson, warned that adding too much butter and/or oil could negate the health benefits.

Here’s what occurred to me, though.  A previous scientific study found that there are health benefits associated with chocolate (see my blog post “Rx: Chocolate”, 10/26/11).  Just go with me on this.  If popcorn and chocolate were combined… huh?  Sounds good, right?  Maybe Harry and David’s Moose Munch will prove to be about the healthiest thing we can eat!

8 responses to “The Big Picture on Popcorn

  1. Personally, I think popcorn in theaters should be replaced by avocados. Sounds impractical, I know, but it would really help me out.

    • Dave, I had momentarily forgotten that you are among the 1% of the population who can call himself a farmer. Guacamole is certainly a delicious snack, but sharing a bowl of it in a dark theater… well, the floors are pretty sticky already.

  2. Tom, my father used to grow hundreds of acres of popcorn in northern Indiana. He bought his seed from Orville Redenbacher. If you want to know anything about popcorn farming, he’s your man.

    • Sounds like he was a popcorn titan, Bob: There are currently a little over 200,000 acres producing popcorn on just under 1,000 farms. Was his farm near Valparaiso or Van Buren? Both of those Indiana towns lay claim to the title “The Popcorn Capital of the World”.

  3. As a health-nut, foodie, student-on-a-budget, and SAG Member catching up on nominated flicks… I thoroughly enjoyed this post! Popcorn: healthy, a good bang for your buck, and waistline (sans butter), and a bit of cinema history! Thanks for sharing! -An Oxnard Shores Neighbor 🙂

  4. I’m guessing popcorn isn’t healthy the way we like to make it: tossed with truffle oil and grated parmesan cheese.

    • Probably not, but it sounds good! By the way, the round kernels that are often used in coated popcorn (like Cracker Jack) are known in the trade as “mushrooms”. The ones that pop out into several points are called “butterflies”.

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