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Fri August 17, 2012
Innovations in Food: Microwave Popcorn Goes 'Natural'
Microwave popcorn's convenient and popular — but recent studies say the lining of those pop-proof bags might not be safe, and some of the flavoring additives aren't the most natural. Which made Kristy Lewis feel a little uncomfortable about her pregnancy cravings for the stuff. Her solution? Reinvent.
It all started with a love for popcorn. And for Kristy and Coulter Lewis, that love grew into a business idea.
“We grew up eating microwave popcorn, you know popping it at sleepovers and as we got older, we realized that we can’t keep eating this stuff,” said Kristy Lewis, co-founder of Quinn Popcorn in Woburn. “The bag’s filled with chemicals, trans-fat, palm oil, everything. We wanted to take it all out. We wanted to give our families and friends and other folks the opportunity to buy good, natural microwave popcorn.”
But they didn’t want to stop eating the stuff. So Kristy and her husband Coulter decided to create their own all-natural, organic microwave popcorn. During that time she was pregnant with their son Quinn and craving popcorn. The Lewises turned their kitchen into a test kitchen, trying out paper bags and different flavors. As soon as Quinn was born, they were compelled to turn their project into a business, and in their words, reinvent microwave popcorn. But changing a product that’s been made a certain way for a long time isn’t easy.
Before you get to the corn …
Half the battle was finding the right bag. Most microwave popcorn you buy comes in bags lined with grease-proofing agents so the oil doesn't seep through the packaging. That lining has chemicals and an aluminum insert that’s supposed to help the kernels pop evenly. But Kristy and Coulter had a different idea — they didn’t want any of that stuff in their bag.
“Sourcing the paper took months,” Kristy said. “People thought I was nuts. Bag manufacturers were saying, 'You can’t do that.' Then I’d call someone else, you know on the phone 24/7 for the first 8 months.”
Recent studies have raised concerns with a type of chemical used in the lining of microwave popcorn bags. The studies indicate that the C8 perfluorinated compounds in the lining can have toxic effects on humans and animals—so toxic that last October, the Food and Drug Administration said all bag manufacturers had to remove it.
After months of searching, they found a bag without any weird lining or glues.
“We found a paper that’s processed in a way mechanically — just pressed really hard basically so it’s naturally greaseproof,” said Coulter.“So we get away with using no chemicals and no coatings at all, basically. Just paper.”
And it works. Not to mention: It’s compostable.
Mmm, delicious preservatives
The other tricky part was getting flavors without additives and preservatives.
“It takes time. So that first year, Kristy was on the phone talking to suppliers non-stop, and saying “can you take that out?” Coulter said. “And they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t take that out, that’s just normal.’ And fight to have that thing as pure as possible. Like cheese powder, they would have added this thing to make it work better. And we’d say, 'Don’t add that thing.'”
The Lewises found an organic corn supplier in Nebraska, but wanted to offer flavors that aren’t typically associated with microwave popcorn, like maple, lemon and Parmesan and rosemary. The end product is a bag of kernels, a pouch for the expeller-pressed oils and another, separate pouch for the seasoning. They come in a sophisticated box with simple graphics and instructions — a departure from most microwave popcorn boxes that have an overflowing bowl of popcorn enlarged to show texture.
The eater adds the oil, shakes the bag, adds the seasoning and shakes the bag again. Getting it all evenly distributed is an art one develops over time, but Kristy and Coulter had their product and a mission.
Now all they needed was a place to sell Quinn Popcorn. So they went to crowd-funding website Kickstarter to raise money to help them get their product to store shelves. Their goal was to raise $10,000, and an overwhelming response got them $28,000. Then Whole Foods jumped on board, gave them a local producer loan and wanted to sell their product.
But this kind of innovation comes at a price: $4.99 for a box with two packages. It’s a couple bucks more than your average box of popcorn that comes with three packages. Kristy said cost is a concern for them.
“We want to get it down. Our goal is to get it down. We’re not doing that on purpose. But packaging is expensive,” she said.
“And we’re not doing it at a mass production scale,” Coulter added. But cost is something they’d like to work on as the business grows.
“We want families to enjoy it. We have a family and I want to be able to afford my own box of popcorn. We want people to afford it,” Kristy said.
In the meantime, consider microwave popcorn reinvented. Just remember to compost the bag when you’re done.
A previous phase of popcorn invention ... before the microwave:
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