If there’s one thing that can unite people in these polarizing times, it’s popcorn. This inoffensive crowd-pleaser is basically the Tom Hanks of snacks. For this reason, I usually bring popcorn to social events, and it’s never gone wrong—until recently. I showed up to a park hang with a bag of Trader Joe’s Synergistically Seasoned Popcorn, not expecting the controversy that ensued. This popcorn split my friend group into two impassioned, opposing factions consisting of almost everyone vs. me. I left with an almost-full bag of popcorn, and a lot of questions.
How could something with “synergy” in its name be so divisive? And how could I love something that so many of my friends vehemently disliked? To me, this popcorn is a standout. As a flavor monster, I subscribe to my co-worker Jordan Myrick’s belief that everything should be flavor blasted. When snacking, I don’t want subtlety. I want intensity. I want a high-volume, raise-the-roof-of-my-mouth party that will have the neighbors complaining on Nextdoor.
Popcorn is a great vehicle for flavor because of all of that spongy, absorbent surface area. But most flavored grocery store popcorn I find to be a little disappointing. Unlike its bolder comrades, Doritos, Cheetos, and BBQ chips, most popcorn doesn’t go hard enough on the seasoning. At the movies, there’s enough butter and salt to transform me into a human-shaped hunk of ramen (I love movie theater popcorn, no notes). But flavor? Not so much. Usually, if we want heavily flavored popcorn, we have to resort to our own devices and make it at home.
But Trader Joe’s Synergistically Seasoned Popcorn bucks this trend. It not only goes hard on the seasoning, but covers a lot of range on the flavor spectrum. As the packaging promises, this popcorn is salty, tangy, smoky, spicy, and slightly sweet. This ensemble is bold; it’s brave; and, in my opinion, it works. Like the cast of Bridesmaids, this collection of heavy hitters manages to enhance each other’s strengths rather than fighting to monopolize our attention.
But as I quickly learned, not everyone feels this way (about the popcorn, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Bridesmaids). Most of my friends didn’t like it, describing the flavor combination as “confusing,” “overwhelming,” “chaos,” and “not good.” The only one who liked it said it was “fine,” but “tastes like barbecue, and should be called that” (she’s not wrong, but I would argue it’s tangier and spicier than BBQ and not as sweet). One friend hated it so vehemently that she maintained six feet of distance from the bag like it was a coughing, unmasked stranger in a supermarket.
Thinking my taste buds must be part of a fringe group, I took to the internet in search of my people. They exist! This snack has a lot of vocal devotees, including some who like it even more than I do! More than one person on Twitter described this popcorn as “worth risking it all for.” Another admitted to downing a whole bag in one sitting, which I would not personally recommend (like with any good rager, you don’t want to overdo it, or your taste buds could end up in bed for a day, mainlining Gatorade and regretting all of their life choices).
But online, just like IRL, this popcorn is polarizing. As @traderjoesgeek said in an Instagram post about the popcorn, “you either love it or hate it.” And the comments on the post prove this to be true. About half the commenters loved it, while the others hated it, expressing this with comments like, “Yuck 😂😂” and “BYE! Absolute trash.”
I was validated to learn that the Sporked staff (elite, professional snackers) took my side of the debate. Although not totally blown away by it, Sporked managing editor Gwynedd Stuart said it “just tastes like popcorn with BBQ seasoning to me,” but added, “It’s super nice that it’s also sweet and has some genuine heat.” Staff writer Danny Palumbo raved about it. “Really good,” he said, “Tastes like chicken. Smoke flavor is nice. Great alchemy of seasoning; an expert spice blend.” Take that, haters! It’s an alchemy of seasonings, according to a pro.
In my quest to discover why this popcorn is so divisive, that might be my answer. This flavor alchemy simply brings too much to the table to not offend someone. I have accepted that my friends, and the Trader Joe’s shoppers of America, may never be able to come together, or synergize, in agreement that this popcorn is the best popcorn. Instead, it joins the ranks of things people either love or hate, like cilantro, Crocs, death metal music, or the Ghostbusters reboot. It’s strong, powerful, and uniquely itself, and it’s not going to please everyone. And, hey, that’s okay!
In a society that wants us to be mild in order to please others, I’m inspired by the unapologetic extra-ness of Trader Joe’s Synergistically Seasoned Popcorn. It dares to be its spicy, tangy, smoky, salty, and slightly sweet self, whether or not we like it. And that is one of the reasons I do.