SIOUX CITY | Seeking to broaden its appeal to consumers, Jolly Time Pop Corn has rolled out two varieties of buttery microwave popcorn made with Smart Balance's unique blend of heart-healthy cooking oils.

Smart Balance has developed a national following for its line of buttery spreads, peanut butters and other products that contain no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.

Invented by researchers at Brandeis University, the patented blend of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats is designed to improve the ratio of good HDL cholesterol to bad LDL cholesterol.

"Smart Balance has a very good name, especially with health-conscious people, and Jolly Time has a very good name," said Garry Smith, president of American Pop Corn Co., the Sioux City-based maker of Jolly Time. "Their brand together with our brand in microwave popcorn is the best of two worlds."

The marriage, Smith, said was more than seven years in the making. Initially, Smart Balance's then-owner was not interested in a deal because it was already making its own line of popcorn.

Smith restarted talks after Smart Balance was acquired in 2007 by Boulder Brands Inc., a natural food products firm based in Boulder, Colo. Two years ago, a deal was struck that gave Jolly Time the Smart Balance licensing rights.

Last fall, Jolly Time began making its Butter, Light Butter and Homemade microwave varieties with Smart Balance. Traditionally, Smith said, microwave popcorn has been produced with vegetable oil, which is high in trans fat, or palm oil, which is high in saturated fats.

In prepare for the switch, Jolly Time sent some of its top scientist to "margarine school" at Kansas State University, he said. Employees also journeyed to a plant in Ventura, Calif. to watch how Smart Balance was made.

The formulation change also required American Pop Corn to spend upwards of $1 million to modify four of its 10 production lines at its microwave popcorn complex in Leeds.

The makeup of Smart Balance was not compatible with the plant's normal process of heating the oil to 105 degrees before packaging it with the kernels. To solve the problem, the company installed heat exchangers above the packing lines. They rapidly drop the temperature of the Smart Balance oil to 65 degrees F, turning it into a semi-solid state.

"What we are doing is making margarine out of the oil going into our bag," Smith said. "When it gets at that texture, it will stay solid and not leak."

The addition of Smart Balance compliments the nutritional value of Jolly Time popcorn, which is a good source of whole grain, without sacrificing the buttery flavor, Smith said.

"The slogan we're using for this is, 'All the Taste... Made Better,' " Smith said.

Last month, Jolly Time launched a national advertising campaign for its new Smart Balance varieties. Coupons were placed last week in a number of daily newspapers, including the Journal.

The products, which were gradually added to retail shelves beginning late last year, are now found in a majority of U.S. supermarkets, Smith said.

"We have had a lot of success getting distribution," he said. "Now we have to get mom to pull it off the shelf."

Amy Fischl, a registered dietitian at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said Jolly Time popcorn with the Smart Balance blend gives health-conscious consumers a "better snacking alternative."

"Millions of U.S. consumers are looking for new ways to eliminate trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils and hydrogenated oils from their diets," Fischl said.

Jolly Time officials are optimistic the public familarity with Smart Balance will jump start sales of its middle butter and light butter varieties. The industry's largest segment, it accounts for about 35 percent of all microwave popcorn sales, Smith said.

"We have struggled in that section, and we needed to do something different," he said.

Jolly Time, a fourth-generation family business that turns 100 years old next year, holds a stronger position in the heavy butter and low-fat segments, which represent 20 to 25 percent and 15 to 20 percent, respectively, of industry sales.

Blast O' Butter, Jolly Time's buttery, theater-style microwave popcorn, has been a stop seller since its introduction in the 1990s. More recently, Jolly Time has seen explosive growth in 94 percent fat free varieties, following a high-profile endorsement from Weight Watchers.

Smith said the company has no immediate plans to change the oil formulation of its Blast O' Butter and Healthy Pop microwave varieties.


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