Movie theaters are making a melodrama out of a molehill by resisting a proposal to inform customers about the calories in concession stand snacks. We're no fans of the nanny state; people should decide for themselves what they want to eat and drink. But part of empowering consumers to make smart decisions is giving them basic information, and that includes the fact that a large popcorn might contain more calories than they're supposed to eat in an entire day.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should go ahead with its proposal to require large-chain theaters to post or otherwise provide that information. The regulations, which would also cover such items as soda and hot dogs, don't need to be onerous. Calorie counts could be posted on the price board, or on printouts that give the fuller nutritional picture, including information about fat and salt as well.
Theater owners complain that they aren't running chain restaurants — which under federal healthcare law must give customers calorie information — but entertainment venues that happen to sell prepared food. That line isn't clever enough to hide the reality that theaters make a hefty portion of their money on the big markups at their food stands; how else could a cup of ice with a little soda come in at $4.50? And the best "bargain," if such a thing exists, is the giant, refillable buckets of popcorn.
Air-popped popcorn is actually a low-calorie and relatively healthy whole-grain snack — about 240 calories for a half-gallon, plus a decent dose of fiber. But as various studies have found, theater popcorn generally is made with plenty of oil. A large-size bucket of fat-laden popcorn easily surpasses the 1,000-calorie mark — even before they slather on the butter-flavored oil topping. Some theaters are more health-conscious than others, using unsaturated oils in moderation. But patrons have no way of knowing what it is they're buying.
More than a decade ago, some theaters dabbled in the healthier air-popped product, but customers weren't buying; admittedly, there's a cardboard element to the stuff. But that was also before concerns were raised about America's growing waistline and its impact on diabetes and other serious medical conditions.
Many moviegoers would probably decide that buttery popcorn is a rare and not-to-be-missed treat, and that's fine, but there's no doubt that some customers' eyes would be opened by the calorie counts. The reluctance of theater owners to provide them with that information shows that they understand: An informed consumer is at least a little more likely to take in just the movie, not an extra 1,600 calories in popcorn and soda.