Throughout the years, popcorn has become highly associated as a staple at movie theaters and sports arenas alike. Made from heating seed kernels of corn until the kernels “pop,” popcorn is a very popular snack as Americans alone consume an estimated 15 billion quarts of popcorn a year. However, people with dietary restrictions wonder whether popcorn is a vegan snack or not.
Popcorn by nature is perfectly vegan as it is simply popped corn kernels. However, popcorn is easily turned non-vegan depending on how it was cooked or when non-vegan ingredients are added for flavor. The best way to prepare vegan popcorn would be to make it at home from scratch since most microwavable popcorn brands are not vegan.
While popcorn became popular in the 19th century, archaeological evidence suggests that corn kernels have been popped as early as ancient Peru in 4700 BC (1).
It is estimated that there are 12,000 different varieties of corn (Zea mays), but popcorn only comes from six main types: dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, flour corn, waxy corn, and sweet corn.
Popcorn is made from the popping of corn kernels, a phenomenon that happens due to the morphology of the corn kernel. Essentially a seed, a corn kernel surrounds the starchy endosperm with a hard hull. Containing about 14-20% water, the function of the endosperm is to provide nutrition to the embryo of the corn.
When the kernel is heated, the water in the endosperm becomes steam which then expands and increases the pressure inside the seed. With sufficient pressure, the kernel erupts inside out which turns into popcorn. Aside from corn, other grains have been found to pop as well such as quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum (although not as prominently as corn).
Popped corn kernels have been found to exist in two main shapes: the butterfly shape and the mushroom shape. The butterfly shape is characterized by the irregular shape and protruding portions while the mushroom shape is more regularly spherical. The shapes are primarily dictated by the variety of corn used.
Although butterfly-shaped popcorn is preferred, companies use mushroom-shaped popcorn when making pre-packaged popcorn snacks due to their better structural integrity.
While a common snack, popcorn has been highly associated as a staple for watching movies and sporting events. The Popcorn Board, an association of different popcorn companies, had a survey show that 51% of respondents say that popcorn is a requirement for the perfect movie night (2).
By nature, popcorn is perfectly acceptable for vegans because popcorns are simply corn kernels that have been cooked and popped.
However, popcorn becomes problematic for vegans when other ingredients are added to it for flavor.
Many ingredients that are commonly added to popcorn are unfortunately not vegan (such as butter, cheese, caramel, and more).
Fortunately, people can just add vegan flavor seasonings instead such as salt, oregano, cinnamon, masala, and more. However, if they are craving for the taste of non-vegan ingredients, many vegan versions are available..
Popcorn can also be non-vegan when it is prepared by cooking the kernels in butter compared to a vegan option such as vegetable oil.
While some people can enjoy plain popcorn straight out of a pan, some people find it bland. Thus, many people add ingredients to enhance the flavor. However, while there are some that are vegan, some common ingredients added to popcorn are non-vegan.
One of the most common ingredients added to popcorn to enhance its flavor is salt. A significant portion of people enjoy salted popcorn as 18% of the Popcorn Board survey respondents answered that salted popcorn is their favorite flavor.
Fortunately, salt is a completely vegan ingredient. Denoted by its chemical name sodium chloride, salt is a naturally occurring mineral that can be harvested from a variety of sources such as ocean water, evaporation ponds, and rock salt.
Additionally, iodized salt is a great source of iodine for vegan diets.
As classic as salt, butter is a common ingredient to add to popcorn. A whopping 30% of the Popcorn Board survey respondents answered that buttered popcorn is their favorite flavor. Aside from adding butter to popcorn, people also cook popcorn using butter instead of oil for added flavor.
Unfortunately, butter is not considered vegan as it is a dairy product. However, there are vegan butter alternatives that can be made at home or purchased. These vegan butter products use plant-based ingredients.
Cheese is also a very common flavor to add to popcorn. Different kinds of cheese can be used but cheddar and white cheddar are among the most commonly used kinds for popcorn.
Unfortunately, cheese is the same case as butter - they are dairy products which means they are not vegan. Fortunately, vegan versions of cheese exist..
Caramel is a highly preferred popcorn flavor, especially to people who prefer their popcorn sweet rather than savory. While not as common as the other popcorn flavors in movie theaters or sports arenas, caramel popcorn is a common packaged snack that can be found in supermarkets.
Unfortunately, caramel is not considered vegan. It is made of dairy ingredients such as butter and cream that are both produced from milk. But just like all other ingredients in this list, there are vegan versions that are available for those who want the caramel flavor without compromising their vegan diets.
When making popcorn at home, people have the freedom to add anything they want to their snack - including vegan ingredients.
Aside from adding salt, one common vegan route to add flavor to plain popcorn is to simply use herbs and spices. Vegan ingredients such as oregano, cinnamon, parsley, thyme, and garlic powder are recommended.
Prepackaged vegan popcorn snacks are also available in supermarkets and online stores. Examples would include Angie’s BOOM CHICKA POP Sea Salt Popcorn, Pop Art Thai Coconut Curry Popcorn, and SkinnyPop Sea Salt and Pepper Popcorn.