The Untold Truth Of Microwave Popcorn

These days, microwave popcorn isn't the kind of thing anybody gets too excited about. It's something you maybe have stuck in the back of your pantry for those days when you run out of more exciting snack options, and it seems to be pretty ubiquitous in every workplace break room as well (at least, the lingering smell left when somebody inevitably burns a bag of the stuff). Believe it or not, though, this was some pretty game-changing stuff when it first started showing up in grocery stores in 1981 (via Serious Eats).

Microwave popcorn actually arrived at exactly the right time. While microwaves themselves had been around since the 1940s, they weren't typical kitchen appliances in the U.S. until the '80s. What's more, the 80s saw a growing interest in fitness, and along with that, a rise in the popularity of healthier eating options. Popcorn, which is less fatty and calorie-dense than potato chips (via Livestrong), seemed to fit the bill just perfectly, particularly popcorn that could be prepared in just minutes and came with its own built-in serving container.

The first microwave popcorn had to be kept in the fridge

While the earliest-ever microwave popcorn was made by Pillsbury and sold in vending machines in the mid-70s, according to Popcorn Boss, the first brand to be sold in stores was something called ACT I. You ever wonder, when you see a product named after a number, whatever happened to the preceding numbers in the series, like, say, Chanels Number 1 through 4, or was there ever a 6-Up? Well, those questions we can't answer, but we can unveil the mystery behind ACT II, a popular brand of microwave popcorn that still exists. Act I contained real butter. While this ingredient probably made the popcorn extra-tasty, it also caused it to be perishable so it had to be kept in the fridge.

Act II was the shelf-stable version that came along in 1984 using "butter flavoring" instead of butter. While microwave popcorn was already a booming business, this extra added convenience sent sales through the roof – the New York Times reported that $250 million of microwave popcorn was sold in 1986, and new brands were popping up all the time.

The patron saint of microwave popcorn

If there's one name that will forever be associated with microwave popcorn, that name could only be the rather unforgettable Orville Redenbacher. Mr. Redenbacher wasn't another fictitious pitch person like Betty Crocker. Instead, he was an agricultural scientist who created a better breed of corn more suitable for popping. Once he decided to go into business marketing that corn, he told David Letterman (via Serious Eats), "I hired a big firm in Chicago to come up with a name. They came up with the name 'Orville Redenbacher' — which is the same identical name my mother thought of, 85 years ago, and they charged $13,000 for the idea."

Redenbacher did not actually invent microwave popcorn. Popcorn Boss reveals that Percy Spencer, inventor of the microwave, actually patented an idea for a microwave popcorn popping bag back in 1947, and in the 70s General Mills' R&D team patented the first such bag to go into production. Still, Redenbacher's corn variety turned out to be so well-suited for microwaving that by the time Mr. Redenbacher passed away in 1995, his patented corn kernels accounted for 45 percent of all microwave popcorn sales.

The decline of microwave popcorn

While microwave popcorn was the late 20th century's go-to snack, its popularity began to wane shortly after the turn of the new millennium. For one thing, our ever-shortening attention spans meant that we were no longer willing to wait a whole three to four minutes for our snack to be ready, particularly since you basically have the stand right next to the microwave counting seconds between the pops so you'll know the optimal moment to pull the bag out before the popcorn starts to burn (sadly, that "popcorn" button on most microwaves really doesn't work too well). Plus, the advent of healthier, more upscale brands of ready-popped corn such as Smart Food and Skinny Pop elevated this snack above its neon-orange gas station roots. By 2019, Snack and Bakery noted that consumer preferences had shifted decidedly towards ready-to-eat popcorn, leaving the microwaveable kind struggling to keep up, perhaps due in part to the fact that they've decidedly lagged the pre-popped sector when it comes to introducing innovative flavors.

Another reason why many consumers turned away from microwave popcorn was that it came to be seen as unhealthy, with both bags and flavorings containing harmful chemicals. Plus, the microwave itself was declining in popularity, being perceived as unsafe. Periodic recalls due to self-igniting popcorn (via the Consumer Product Safety Commission) haven't done much to promote the product's popularity, either.

You're probably making it wrong

If you're one of the few and the brave who are still microwaving their own popcorn, you may be interested to hear of this microwave popping hack that comes courtesy of the Aldi microwave popcorn bag. Evidently it will pop better, and fluffier, and with fewer rock-hard un-popped kernels if you preheat the microwave by heating a cup of water in it for one minute. Remove the water, put the bag in the oven, then stand by to wait for the popping to start.

The real hack, however, still involves standing by to pull the bag out as soon as the popping slows down, since the biggest mistake you can make is letting it burn. Even if that popcorn flambé doesn't set off your smoke alarm and piss off everyone within a quarter-mile vicinity, it will leave a long-lasting stench that's pretty much guaranteed to put you off popcorn for a while. If you luck out and your popcorn comes out ok, though, be sure to drizzle it with real melted butter or maybe some leftover bacon grease. It might be less healthy this way, but oh, will it taste good!