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Popcorn Pair

Saturday, January 6, 2018
filed under: Utilization/Trade

By Liz Morrison

       Editor’s Note:  The following article first appeared in the Oct-Dec 2017 issue of AURI Ag Innovation News, a publication of the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, and is reprinted here with permission of AURI.
       Business is popping at Smude’s Sunflower Oil in Pierz, Minn.
       Seven years ago, Tom and his wife, Jenni, central Minnesota cattle farmers, began working with the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Institute (AURI) to develop Minnesota’s first cold-press sunflower oil manufacturing company. Now, Smude’s Sunflower Oil is expanding into microwave popcorn.
       The fast-growing company’s newest product is made with Smude’s heart-healthy sunflower oil. Tom and Jenni Smude launched Smude’s Brand Microwave Popcorn in August 2017, and it’s already available at major grocery store chains, including Coborn’s and Lunds & Byerlys.
       Smude’s Brand also includes cold-pressed, high-oleic sunflower oil and flavored sunflower dipping oils. Their cold-press process uses no chemicals or heat, which maintains the oil’s natural flavor and nutrients, says Tom Smude.
       AURI has worked with the energetic Smudes since 2010, when they founded their on-farm sunflower crushing enterprise. “Tom and Jenni are true entrepreneurs,” says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist. “Food ventures are particularly challenging,” he adds. “They’ve done a good job at building their brand.”
A Favorite, Wholesome Snack
       Popcorn is one of America’s favorite snacks. In fact, Americans consume about 14 billion quarts of popped popcorn a year,
according to industry group, the Popcorn Board. That translates to roughly 43 popped quarts per person, annually!
       Sunflower oil is a natural for popcorn, Tom says. Like olive oil, sunflower oil is high in monounsaturated fat and Omega
fatty acids, which help lower “bad” cholesterol. It’s also high in Vitamin E, a natural preservative. It holds up under high cooking temperatures and has a light, buttery taste. Mann Movie Theatres already use Smude’s Sunflower Oil in their commercial corn poppers.
       With the majority of popcorn, 70%, consumed at home, microwave popcorn was a logical way to extend the market for
Smude’s sunflower oil, Tom says. “People kept telling us we should make a microwave popcorn. We all lead such busy lifestyles, so microwave popcorn has an advantage.”
       Smude’s Brand Microwave Popcorn contains just three ingredients: popcorn seeds, salt and premium sunflower oil.
That appeals to today’s health-conscious consumers who want convenient, wholesome snacks with ingredients they recognize, says Ben Swanson, AURI food scientist.
       Most microwave popcorn contains primarily saturated fat from palm or coconut oil, Swanson says. Because Smude’s popcorn uses sunflower oil, it has far less saturated fat per bag than other brands, Swanson says — only about 1%, and the liquid oil coats the seeds uniformly for more even popping. “It reminds me of popcorn my grandma made on the stovetop. It has a very clean taste — no oily, fake butter taste.”
       Engineering a paper bag for popping that wouldn’t leak liquid sunflower oil took some doing, Tom says. He worked with a
packaging technology company to develop a patented bag design and seal. “We use a chemical-free bag without a wax coating.”
       AURI provided nutritional analysis and labeling, shelf life testing and salt content guidance. Those services are a great boon to start-up food companies, Swanson says. “The people we work with have great passion and belief in their products, but they don’t have a lot of money for research and development activities.”
       To begin with, Tom and Jenni expect to process one semitrailerload of popcorn a week. Smude’s works with five Midwest food distributors and sells nationwide through its website .
       Their target market is “the natural foods market and high-end grocery stores,” Tom says. Smude’s brown paper popcorn bag really captures “the natural foods vibe,” Swanson says. “They are launching at a good time,” he adds, “when the natural and local foods trends are in full swing.”
       Sparby seconds that. “The local foods movement is a bright spot for small food companies” like Smude’s, which are commanding growing sections of supermarkets. “Many retailers are clamoring for local food products.”
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