Utah company makes popcorn with a surprising, healthy ingredient

April 4, 2019

Pop Zero is a Provo company that makes popcorn with zero saturated fat and zero trans fat, hence the name. It’s also vegan friendly. How? Because of one ingredient: algae oil.

Don’t worry, it’s not algae scraped off of Utah lake. Instead, the algae oil is farmed, grown in large air-tight vats and then pressed for oil.

In addition to possibly being the healthiest oil on the market, algae is bio sustainable, feeding off of the waste from sugar cane refinement and producing little to no waste itself. Once the oil is pressed out, the leftover algae is dried to make flour. Oh, and it can produce over 400 gallons of oil per acre. For comparison, one acre of canola or rapeseed will produce between 75-240 gallons per acr e, depending on where it’s planted.

“We knew that we wanted to do something healthy, and we knew that we wanted to do something that was unique and innovative,” Pop Zero co-founder Josh Brownlow said. “And (algae oil) just ha(s) a whole range of really unique benefits to it ... and also, we (feel), a much better taste.”

Brownlow and his company stumbled upon the idea of using algae oil for popcorn when they were actually trying to save a small chocolate business. Popcorn was easy to produce in a high volume, and working with food scientists, they learned about algae oil, a product which up until recently has been too expensive to sell in mainstream markets. It’s still on the pricier side, but Brownlow said it’s worth it.

Within four months of releasing the algae-oil popcorn product, popcorn sales generated 90% of the company’s revenue, with the still-in-production chocolates making up the rest. Once Pop Zero landed a large investor, Fifth Partners, it was time to turn focus completely on the popcorn.

“From the day that Fifth Partners became involved and gave ... me more ability to make certain decisions, we immediately turned off all the chocolate machines, sold them, just go rid of them,” Brownlow said.

From that point on, with a great product, Brownlow said attention turned to building a great team.

“Just finding as many people as we can that have the same ethical compass that we do,” Brownlow said. “We don’t just want to be chasing cash. We don’t want to have an...environment where people are pulling someone else down to build themselves up.”

A phrase that gets tossed around the office a lot is “boys in the boat” — taken from a book of the same name which details the true story of nine boys from the University of Washington who won the gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The point of the rowing metaphor, Brownlow explained, is that everyone is working towards the same goal, or “rowing” the same direction.

“So we’re very deliberate and specific about the types of individuals we want to hire, and making sure the culture’s a major focus.”

Natalie Davis, who works for Pop Zero in PR, said the company culture is one of the best she’s ever experienced.

“Once a week we’ll bring in (slow cookers) and make taco soup to eat together for lunch, and after work sometimes we’ll play Spikeball and basketball together,” Davis said. “It’s just a really cool company culture.”

Besides the company culture, Davis is also enthusiastic about the product. After algae is pressed for oil, she explained, the leftovers can be used for fuel, if they’re not turned into flour.

“Pop Zero is the healthiest popcorn on the market and it uses the most environmentally responsible ingredients available,” Davis said in an email.

Pop Zero popcorn currently comes in four different flavors — “Guilt Free Cinema,” a vegan movie theater popcorn, “Sea Salt,” “Cinnamon Toast,” and “Chili Lime.”

The movie theater flavor is the most popular seller in the most western states, except for California, where Sea Salt reigns supreme. All of the flavors are relatively low-calorie as well, coming in at less than 50 calories a cup.

And so far, customers seem to be loving it. Brownlow explained the company recently received the results of a study where participants blindly taste-tested Pop Zero next to popcorn giants Boom Chicka Pop and Skinny Pop, and according to the results, Brownlow said, 90% of participants preferred the taste of Pop Zero.

“We’re really excited about (it),” Brownlow said.

A good taste and zero bad fats aren’t even the half of it, though.

Dr. Michael Dunn, a food scientist specializing in food product development and currently teaching at BYU, explained that algae oil is packed with omega 3s — essential fatty acids that studies have linked to heart health, developing cognitive function in infants, possibly reducing arthritis and more. Algae oil, Dunn said, is actually the primary source of omega 3s in nature, although in the past people have tried to incorporate them into their diets by eating fish or taking fish oil capsules.

“Fish don’t produce omega 3s, they get it by eating the algae that’s present in plankton or just algae itself,” Dunn said.

Besides having a higher concentration of omega 3s than fish oil, Dunn emphasized algae oil’s sustainability. According to https://www.thrivealgae.com /, which sells one of the few bottles of algae oil on the market today, algae oil has a lower carbon and water footprint compared to other oils, in addition to having a higher production rate.

“It’s becoming much more mainstream because the price has come down,” Dunn said. “But it’s a specialty oil, so it’s still going to be much more expensive than your common types of vegetable oil.”

Another reason algae oil will remain expensive, Dunn said, is its rather unfortunately short shelf life.

Omega 3s, Dunn explained, are more likely to oxidize over time than other fatty acids. Not too quickly — a bottle of algae oil won’t spoil overnight, and Pop Zero won’t go bad in the pantry, but maybe don’t include it in food storage.

In the meantime, Pop Zero popcorn will still provide “a significant nutritional benefit,” Dunn said.

The Utah based company is growing fast, Brownlow said, with almost 1300 retailers across the Intermountain West, California, the Pacific West, the midwest, and Texas, with “a few hundred more coming on every month.” However, the company will remain firmly in Utah.

“We are a Utah company and we want to stay a Utah company. We are fully Utah owned and operated,” Brownlow said. “I certainly do not foresee us every leaving Utah as our home.”

Pop Zero is available for purchase on https://www.popzeropopcorn.com /, as well as in Smith’s and Harmon’s stores.