According to http://www.popcorn.org, Americans consume in excess of 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually – or about 54 quarts for every man, woman and child. The world’s primary popcorn producing region is the Midwestern United States and an entire food industry has grown up around it.
Why is popcorn so popular? Because it is nutritional, versatile and delicious! Popcorn is an easily prepared whole grain snack. Without butter or other additions, popcorn is about 31 – 55 calories per cup. It goes with almost anything, and can accept a wide variety of flavor enhancements. Today, you don’t have to do much work to enjoy this treat. While of course one can still purchase raw popcorn and either air or oil pop it, microwave popcorn has become ubiquitous. In fact, the first test of the microwave on food in the 1940’s was popcorn. By the 1990’s this product niche had over $240 million in sales. And while salt and butter remain the most popular flavors, today’s marketplace is full of gourmet popcorns — and not only caramel. There are cheese flavors, chocolate covered, nut balls and new flavor trends like jalapeno, too.
So, where does kosher come into this? Well, just about everywhere! While popcorn itself is intrinsically kosher when it comes from the ear, kosher concerns come into play as soon as it is processed. Today, popcorn is commonly purchased in easy to prepare forms like microwave or “in tin,” ready for the campfire or stove top. Almost all of these concoctions contain oils and flavorings – all of which have numerous kosher concerns. In fact, the OU certifies a large number of specialty popcorn popping and flavoring oils as well as numerous specialty flavoring powders and mixes tailored specifically to the popcorn industry.
As always, other kosher concerns surround the manufacturing and packaging. Does the company make only kosher versions, or are some of the cheese flavors, for example, not kosher? Is the end product pareve or dairy? What about, for example, the slurry mixers for the butter or cheese flavoring – does the company have enough equipment to have separate lines for each kosher related category? If not, how complicated a process is it to change from one to another? Is everything cool enough and automated enough that standard cleaning will suffice, or will a rabbi have to come and kosherize the equipment each time? Is it possible to set up effective and auditable cleanup and manufacturing protocols? Are packaging lines sufficiently cleaned and separated? As you can see, many kosher concerns present themselves between the corn field and that bag of delicious popcorn on the supermarket shelf.
A cursory look at the OU computer system finds nearly 550 products related to popcorn – everything from raw kernels to “pineapple, coconut, and macadamia nut popcorn.” So next time you eat a bag of delicious, nutritious OU certified popcorn, take a little time to think about all of the energy and work that goes “Behind the Union Symbol!”