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Wait a minute. Isn’t popcorn supposed to be a healthy snack?

 It can be, but considering the way it’s prepared at many movie theaters, you may want to fill up on a fruit salad before you go and steer clear of the concession stand altogether.

 New laboratory tests conducted by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest reveal that a $12 medium-popcorn-and-soda combo sold at Regal, the country’s largest movie-theater chain, contains 1,610 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat — the equivalent of three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with 12 pats of butter.

The traditional movie fare served up at other theaters around the country can be equally heart-stopping, according to the center’s findings:

  • At AMC theaters, serving sizes are smaller but can still pack a wallop. A large popcorn has 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat — the equivalent of a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, but with more fat.
  • At Cinemark, which pops its popcorn in heart-healthy canola oil, a large popcorn has 910 calories with 4 grams of saturated fat. “Though popping in canola gives this chain’s popcorn far less saturated fat than its competitors, it’s almost as high in calories and has the most sodium — about twice as much as Regal or AMC,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement.
  • The giant sodas served at the movies also take a toll, the study said. To name just one example, a 54-ounce large soda at Regal has 33 teaspoons of sugar and 500 empty calories.
  • And don’t forget about the candy: A 5-ounce bag of Twizzlers contains 15 teaspoons of sugar. A 7-ounce box of Nerds contains 46 teaspoons of sugar. And an 8-ounce bag of Reese’s Pieces contains 1,160 calories and 35 grams of saturated fat.

“Sitting through a two-hour movie isn’t exactly like climbing Mount Everest,” said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?”

Give us our buttery popcorn!

Theater managers say the reason is clear: They’re simply giving customers what they expect and crave when they head out to the movies.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest released similar findings about movie popcorn back in 1994, and many theaters responded at that time. They began offering their customers extra choices, including air-popped popcorn.

But it was a complete flop.

“After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard — they wanted the traditional popcorn back,” the National Association of Theatre Owners said in a statement.

Greg Dunn, president and chief operating officer of Regal Entertainment Group, agreed.

“The alternative choices were not well received by our theater guests,” Dunn said. “Based on sales and feedback from our patrons, we offer a selection of concession items that reflect the preferences of our customers.”

Dunn also noted that the average American attends six movies a year. 

“Theater popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet,” Dunn said. 



AMC declined to comment for this story. Cinemark noted that in addition to popping its popcorn in canola oil, which is low in saturated fat and trans-fat free, the theater chain also makes a wide range of healthy concession options available to guests, including pretzel nuggets, bottled water, diet sodas and topping-free and salt-free popcorn. 

“We frequently test market additional concessions alternatives, including trail mix and other low-fat snacks,” said James Meredith, vice president of marketing and communications for Cinemark USA Inc. “Ultimately, our snack and refreshment options are driven by patron demand.”

The perils of coconut oil

Hurley, the nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the use of coconut oil is what poses a real threat to moviegoers’ arteries.

“Regal and AMC — the two largest chains — are popping in the worst possible oil: coconut oil,” said Hurley, who writes about the study’s findings in the December issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter. “Coconut oil is 90 percent saturated. Lard is 40 percent.”

Hurley also complained about the lack of nutritional information being given to customers.

“There’s no nutrition information posted on movie theater menu boards — just the price — so people have really no idea,” she said.

Giant portions and mindless over-snacking don’t help matters, either, said Dr. Gregory Plemmons, who runs a weight management clinic at Vanderbilt University.

“If you’re engrossed in the movie, you’re just sort of sitting there munching and you don’t realize how full you’re getting,” Plemmons said.

But even if customers are armed with ample health-related information, theater managers remain convinced that buttery popcorn, massive sodas and sugary candies will continue to top their lists of favorite items.

“Moviegoers have a variety of choices at our concession stands,” said Dunn of Regal. “We acknowledge that some are healthier than others.”

For her part, though, Hurley said the choice is obvious:

“The healthiest snack at movie theaters is no snack at all.”