Taste Test: The Best Cheesy Popcorn
#3: Trader Joe's
First things first, if you've conjured visions of that orange Cheez Doodley stuff, fuhgettaboutit. We're talking super-classy white cheddar (and/or white cheddar "flavor") popcorn. The salty, tangy, pungent kind that gradually coats your fingers in a film so thick and sticky, it can't merely be licked off—it requires dedicated teeth scraping action. Is said scraping an embarrassing act to perform in public? Mayhaps. Has that ever stopped me? Certainly not. So, there you have it. Scientific proof that cheesy popcorn is delicious.*
*I should probably mention that cheesy popcorn is my favorite snack food. And possibly my favorite food-food. So before you challenge my analysis, just know that I'm prepared to defend its honor.
My relationship with cheesy popcorn goes way back. We've traveled together on buses and planes, curled up for movies on rainy Friday nights, and had more drunk encounters than I
can care to recall. It comforts me when I'm sad and it even shares my bed from time to time.
And so, with a general high esteem (and an admittedly disturbing affection) for all things cheesy popcorn, I set out to find the very best, cheesiest-cheddar-cheese-flavor-coated, finger-scraping-good-est, poppiest popped corn in all the land.
For such a crucial taste test, we searched far and wide to ensure that we tasted as many iterations of white cheddar popcorn as possible, though we did limit ourselves to brands that are nationally available. Our ultimate selection boiled down to:
- Brand 1: Wise
- Brand 2: Whole Foods 365
- Brand 3: Smartfood
- Brand 4: Popcorn, Indiana
- Brand 5: Trader Joe's
- Brand 6: Walgreen's Nice!
Cheese Flavor: Does the coating have that sharp, salty-creamy cheddar cheese flavor, or does it taste like chemicals and preservatives? Is it overwhelmingly strong? Not pronounced enough?
Popcorn Quality: Can you taste the popcorn itself? Is it fresh and crunchy, or does it flatten between your teeth into a stale, impenetrable pancake?
Overall: Is it the best cheesy popcorn it can be? Is the coating-to-popcorn ratio balanced and consistent? Would you keep eating them in greedy fistfuls until you get to the little crumbly bits at the bottom of the bag? And would you then funnel those crumbly bits directly from the bag into your mouth? And would you then turn the whole bag inside out just to make sure there's nothing left in the corners? And so on, and so forth.
Our results are ranked according to the overall scores for each brand. One taster summed things up quite accurately, stating that the cheesiness was the most important factor. "Freshness almost doesn't matter, unless it's super stale." Sure enough, our overall ratings didn't have a strong correlation to popcorn quality. By and large, tasters preferred the cheese-heavy brands, but were highly critical of chemical flavors and excessive salt.
The Winner: Smartfood (7/10)
Ah, Smartfood. "YES! Finally something that really tastes like cheese! I'm a fan," wrote one taster. Another commented that "the popcorn felt more substantial—subtle flavor, but amazing." Many referred to the brand as their go-to, and a number of people actually recognized it during the blind test. Though it wasn't the highest performer in terms of popcorn quality and freshness, it was a clear winner when it came to flavor.
Ingredients:Popcorn, vegetable oil (corn, canola, and/or sunflower oil), cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey, buttermilk, and salt.
2nd Place: Wise (6.73/10)
Wise came in at a close second, with generally favorable comments like "nice, salty, cheesy, good." Texture seemed to be the biggest detractor, and a number of people remarked that the kernels were "hard" and "stale."
Ingredients: Popcorn, vegetable oil, cheddar cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), butter, buttermilk, maltodextrin, salt, why (milk derived), reduced lactose whey, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, sodium phosphate, cheese blend [cheddar and blue (cultured milkt, salt, enzymes)] citric acid, lactic acid.
3rd Place: Trader Joe's (6.3/10)
This one was something of an outlier, with a significantly higher correlation between freshness and overall enjoyment. A lot of tasters complained that it wasn't cheesy enough, calling it "vaguely grown-up and boring." One person exclaimed, "Is this supposed to be healthy?!?! Where's my cheese!" Others preferred the low cheese content, appreciating it as "a light, healthy choice."
Ingredients: Popcorn, sunflower oil and/or corn oil, whey, cheddar cheese (pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), buttermilk, salt, disodium phosphate.
4th Place: Whole Foods 365 (5.7/10)
The overwhelming consensus was that Whole Foods 365 made a serviceable but unmemorable snack. It was called "generic," "solidly meh," and "decent, but not quite right." And while nobody had highly specific complaints, but neither were they wowed by any one element.
Ingredients: Organic popcorn, organic expeller pressed sunflower and/or safflower seed oil, organic cheese powder (organic cheddar cheese [organic cultured pasteurized milk, salt, vegetable enzymes], organic nonfat milk, organic whey [milk], salt, disodium phosphate).
5th Place: Popcorn, Indiana (5.1/10)
Popcorn, Indiana received far and away the most comments (and the most consistent comments) from our tasters. Though a number of people complimented it on freshness, nearly all also identified problems with the cheese flavor. "Ugh, weird fakeness," said one taster. "It tastes like watermelon rind. Why?" Others described the cheese as "synthetic," "buttery-sweet," and "oddly sweet and chewy." If you're looking for a typical, salty-tangy cheesy popcorn, you may want to steer clear of this particular brand.
Ingredients: Popcorn, canola oil, whey (milk), maltodextrin, cheddar and blue cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), buttermilk, salt, citric acid, lactic acid.
6th Place: Walgreen's Nice! (4.9/10)
Walgreen's Nice! White Cheddar Popcorn garnered a lot of criticism. Some were disgusted by what they called "buttery weirdness" and "fake MSG-tinted flavor." "Tastes like the wrong snack! LIES!," wrote one. Another asked, "What kind of cheese is this supposed to be?? Very weird, also too salty." But all in all, I think "very buttery, and empty" sums it up.
Ingredients: Popcorn, soybean oil, cheddar cheese (pasteurized milk, salt, annatto extract, culture, enzymes), whey, buttermilk, maltodextrin, salt, lactic acid, artificial flavor, disodium inosinate & guanylate. Contains less than 2% silicon dioxide (anticaking agent).
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.