Here’s the Surprising Difference Between Yellow and White Popcorn Kernels (Yep, There Is One)

Color isn't the only thing to consider when picking the right kind of popcorn.

Top view of a pot full of freshly popped popcorn with salt and unpopped kernels on the side.Photo: Shutterstock / Steve Cukrov

For me, popcorn checks off a lot of boxes for a good snack: it’s inexpensive, easy to make and certain kinds of popcorn can actually be healthy. Say, what? Yes, popcorn really is a healthy whole grain food, we just choose to defile it with butter (treat yourself to Kerrygold), salt and that florescent orange powder that tastes like cheese, but is far from it.

Since I’m more of a healthy eater, I like to make popcorn on the stove. But every time I’m at the grocery store, I’m faced with the choice of yellow or white kernels. Do they really taste the same? I went on a mission to find the answer and save my fellow snackers from the turmoil that is the popcorn aisle.

One hull of a difference—or is there?

Surely, this could be cleared up with information from a reputable FAQ page. I went right to the popcorn king, but Mr. Redenbacher didn’t address this topic at all. I was in shock that others weren’t frequently asking this question. I persisted, though, and heard back from Mr. R’s people, “Typically, white has a more tender texture than yellow corn and yellow tends to make a larger flake than white.” There was no mention of a flavor difference, but at least I was getting somewhere.

With more digging, I learned that white corn generally pops into smaller, more delicate flakes that are bright white while yellow makes a sturdier flake with a hint of yellow color and, some say, a stronger flavor. Most movie theaters use yellow kernels because they pop up big, are less crumbly and their light shade of yellow makes them seem buttery.

What do mushrooms and snowflakes have to do with popcorn?

During my intense investigation, I found out what really differentiates popcorn. It’s not the color, but the shape that kernels pop into when you make popcorn. Mushroom-shaped popcorn flakes come from kernels with thick hulls and more moisture. The extra moisture is needed to create enough steam for the thick hulls to explode. These flakes are round and sturdy, so they’re perfect for chocolate-covered or caramel-coated popcorn. Snowflake-shaped popcorn (sometimes called butterfly-shaped) has an irregular shape when popped and is usually larger and more tender than mushroom-shaped popcorn. It’s the kind you’re most likely to find in theaters and what’s sold in grocery stores. Both yellow and white kernels can make either snowflake- or mushroom-shaped flakes.

So, now you know.

If you want a smaller, more tender popcorn flake, use white kernels. Yellow kernels will give you larger, fluffier flakes that are sturdy. You probably won’t find popcorn labeled as snowflake or mushroom on grocery store shelves; they’re nearly all snowflake. If you’re making candied popcorn, buy kernels that will make mushroom-shaped flakes from a popcorn shop or order online. Now, if I can just figure out a way to add butter to my popcorn without the calories, I’ll be golden (and rich).

Now grab yourself some kernels and make these.
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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.