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The horror story starts in the lobby

Sat-fat is a concession- stand villain. But even the trans-fat-free trend has lost some steam.

March 12, 2007|John Horn and Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

Jose Mier will be working the ShoWest convention floor in Las Vegas this week, peddling his Capital Churros to theater owners there for the annual convention. He envisions the fried and sugary snacks -- about 16 inches long and stuffed with Bavarian cream, caramel and strawberries -- spicing up movie theater concession stands across the nation.

In a nearby booth, Creative Concepts will be promoting Pucker Powder, a sour-powder dispenser -- choose Sweet Blue Bubblegum or Sour White Apple -- for movie fans who want to create edible sugar tubes. FuNacho will be pushing its cheese-and-chips program, American Licorice will showcase its many varieties (is the Saturday matinee crowd ready for pink strawberry twist?) while ConAgra Foods will try to entice theater owners into stocking Slim Jims and Crunch 'n Munch.

ShoWest, which kicks off today, is the industry showcase for a variety of products -- rug shampoo as well as the latest DreamWorks animated movie. An estimated 2,700 exhibitors, distributors and vendors can shuttle from a demonstration of digital projectors to a movie-piracy presentation by the Department of Homeland Security. Studios will trot out finished movies and film clips -- "Hairspray," "Transformers" and "Mr. Brooks" -- while independent film companies will try to generate attention for smaller movies such as "Talk to Me" and "Away From Her."

And while everyone is trying to figure out what the summer's biggest popcorn movie will be, theater owners also will be wrestling with another weighty question: What kind of grease should the popcorn be cooked in?

Theater owners are determined to give audiences a thoroughly modern experience, with stadium seats, surround-sound speakers and 3-D digital projectors. But when it comes to peddling "Star Wars"-era junk food, exhibitors remain stuck in an artery-clogging time warp, health experts say: Although concessions are largely trans-fat free, the caldron-sized portions are still loaded with toxic saturated fats and tooth-rotting sugars.

Even after a highly publicized 1994 study forced many theater chains to steer away from cooking popcorn in coconut oil, several leading exhibitors -- including Regal, the nation's largest, and AMC -- pop their kernels in the unwholesome substance. Another top chain, National Amusements, says it is considering replacing its healthier canola oil with coconut oil too.

"Most foods in concession stands are high in fat. We wish they would minimize portion sizes, but we'd really like to see the more dangerous elements removed," says Dr. Pat Crawford, an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Mary Beth Sodus, a registered and licensed dietitian at the University of Maryland Medical Center's weight management and wellness center, says concession stands advertising food as free of trans fat may be confusing customers.

"You shouldn't be told that if it's trans-fat free, it's OK," Sodus says. "When they use coconut oil, they can say they are trans-fat free. But coconut oil is 86.5% saturated fat."

The theater owners say they are only responding to consumer demand -- heart doctors may wish their patients didn't soak their popcorn in butter-flavored sludge, but hot kernels coated in the flavorful fat is what moviegoers crave.

"The concession stand is an entertainment destination, just like a movie theater," says Larry Etter, the president of the National Assn. of Concessionaires and vice president of the Southern chain Malco Theatres. "You don't go there to work out like a gym."

The nachos problem

Just outside the convention floor is the entrance to Will Rogers Health and Fitness Fair, where ShoWest visitors can check their blood pressure and pulse. It might be good for them to monitor their vital signs before they hit the trade floor. Even with New York City's crackdown on trans fats, healthy movie snacks remain elusive.

All the same, Etter says the 900 members of the concessionaires association are focused on reducing trans fats, and there is even a ShoWest panel on the subject Tuesday afternoon. "There are some people in the theater industry wondering, 'What should we be doing?' "

Etter says some butter-flavored toppings are being reformulated to eliminate trans fat, which is an industrially created type of unsaturated fat that is neither needed in the diet nor beneficial to health. Eating trans fats is known to increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

A tougher challenge, Etter says, is reducing the amount of trans fats in the cheese sauce in which nachos swim. "They need the oil to hold the cheese particles together," Etter says.

Bill Towey, senior vice president of the 1,498-theater National Amusements, says the chain's customers send sometimes conflicting messages about how healthy -- or unhealthy -- they want their concessions to be. In the circuit's most upscale art houses, for example, patrons demand nothing less than real butter on their popcorn, Towey says.

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