Smude’s Microwave Popcorn promises to be a healthier alternative to other microwavable brands. It contains no chemicals, additives, or preservatives. It’s only 170 calories per serving, gluten-free, and boasts zero grams trans fats; it’s 100 percent whole grain.
And it tastes good: like buttered popcorn, even though there’s no butter involved.
But what makes this brand unique is that it’s the first microwaveable brand to use sunflower oil. “It’s a very clean product,” Tom Smude says. “There’s only three ingredients: popcorn, salt, and our sunflower oil.”
This isn’t the first time Tom Smude and his wife, Jenni—founders of Smude Sunflower Oil—have been ahead of the competition. Back in 2007, Tom was growing corn and soybeans, but a drought made him reconsider his crop. He and his wife decided on sunflowers, which they started crushing for oil in 2010.
It was a risky proposition, as few products even used sunflower oil at the time. But Smude’s was different. He cold-pressed it and refused to use hexane to extract the oil, which is standard practice for big oil companies. By developing flavors like hot fiery, lime, and garlic pepper, Smude’s Sunflower Oil became a popular shelf staple among local chefs and home cooks. And it has health advantages, too: In addition to the taste, it has half the saturated fat of olive oil and is 10 percent higher in monounsaturated fat (the “good” kind of fat).
In 2015, the Smude family met a farmer from Mora who also makes and sells popcorn machines. As a silent partner, he took on machinery responsibilities, and the duo went to work creating a kind of bag that could hold the oil. It took several models, but finally one stuck: a non-fluoro bag, which has no wax, and therefore no chemicals, inside. They patented the bag and seal and brought the product to market just after Christmas last year.
“Everybody looks at me like, ‘You’re crazy. Popcorn’s popcorn,’” Smude says. “And then they try it and it’s like, ‘Really? This is out of a microwave bag?’ So that’s pretty neat.”
While getting word out about the popcorn was challenging at first, “I can’t believe how it’s blown up even in the last two months,” Smude says. An expansion to the company’s 50,000 square feet of production space is underway. A new press facility with bigger tanks and pipes will help increase output from 800,000 pounds to 6 million pounds of oil annually. They’ll also have a popcorn machine that can make 350 bags of popcorn per minute (or a half-million bags per day) up and running this fall.
“I would have never guessed, when I graduated from high school, that I would be making microwave popcorn,” Smude says. “You wake up one morning, and all of a sudden you’re in the popcorn business.”
The popcorn is available in Coborn’s, Cash Wise Foods, Lunds and Byerlys, and Kowalski’s, as well as select Festival Foods and Hy-Vee locations.
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