A medium-sized popcorn and medium soda at the nation's largest movie chain pack the nutritional equivalent of three Quarter Pounders topped with 12 pats of butter, according to a report released today by the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The group's second look at movie theater concessions -- the last was 15 years ago -- found little had changed in a decade and a half, despite theaters' attempts to reformulate.
CSPI bought multiple servings of popcorn from the three largest movie chains, Regal Entertainment Group, AMC and Cinemark, and had them analyzed in an independent lab.
It found that a Regal medium popcorn -- 20 cups -- contains 1,200 calories, 60 grams of saturated fat, and 980 milligrams of sodium. That's without the buttery topping that can be drizzled -- or poured -- on the popcorn, which adds another 200 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat per 1.5 tablespoons.
An AMC medium popcorn did better because of its smaller size -- nine cups -- at 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat, and a 14-cup Cinemark medium was 760 calories and just 3 grams of saturated fat (in both cases, before adding buttery topping).
One problem is that Regal and AMC, the two largest chains, pop their popcorn in coconut oil, which is about 90% saturated fat, noted Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at Washington-based CSPI.
Cinemark, the third-largest chain, now pops its corn in canola oil, which explains its much lower saturated fat levels.
"Cinemark gets a thumbs-up for switching," Hurley said.
In two positive steps, trans fatty acids were not found in the samples, Hurley added, and theaters have stopped using hydrogenated oils in the butter-flavored toppings.
The study, published in the December issue of CSPI's Nutrition Action HealthLetter, found that in several cases the theater company calorie counts were lower than the numbers revealed in the study.
For example, Regal's figure of 720 calories for a medium popcorn was considerably lower than the one determined by CSPI. (The company declined to comment beyond a general statement.)
Several chains either did not respond to requests for comment or said they would have no comment. Regal, in its statement, said that movie popcorn is not meant to be daily fare and that it acknowledges some of the food it sells is healthier than others.
"According to the most recent statistics from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the average American attends six movies a year," Regal said. "Theater popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet."
It's unclear if consumers would storm the concession stand for low-cal popcorn anyway. After the 1994 popcorn report, "many cinema operators responded by offering their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn," the National Assn. of Theatre Owners said in a statement.
"After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard -- they wanted the traditional popcorn back."