Movie theaters without popcorn would be like baseball games without hot dogs or Christmas without eggnog. And while most of us probably wouldn't think of mindlessly munching on the butter-soaked snack at home, we make an exception when we're at the movies. Because it's the movies! (Let's just say that whatever marketing voodoo theaters use to make us crave the exploded kernels definitely works.)
So just how bad for you is that tub of popcorn? (Spoiler alert: It is pretty bad.) We took a look at the nutrition information from both Cinemark and AMC, two of the nation's biggest theater chains, spoke to nutrition experts and did a little of our own ingredient sleuthing. Keep reading to find out exactly what's what in the buttery stuff.
The Not-So-Bad News
It's not really plain: Even so-called "plain" popcorn at the movies is a far cry from the low-cal air-popped version you might get elsewhere. For starters, most theaters pop the kernels in either canola oil (at Cinemark locations) or coconut oil (at the majority of AMC and Regal Cinemas). While a three-cup serving of "naked" air-popped popcorn is fat-free and contains about 90 calories, Cinemark's smallest popcorn option (the junior) has 200 calories and 11 grams of fat, and AMC's smallest offering (the cameo) weighs in at 300 calories and 13 grams of fat, including nine grams of saturated fat.
We know what you're thinking (we thought it too): 200 to 300 calories for a single bag doesn't sound so terrible, right? Right, but that's not all you get with your "plain" popcorn. Plus, the nutritional data may not be all that accurate (as will soon become apparent).
The Bad News
It**'**s loaded with salt: The secret ingredient that's responsible for movie popcorn's rich, buttery aroma and flavor? Flavacol (or its equivalent), a seasoning made mostly of very fine salt along with something cryptically referred to as "artificial butter flavor," assorted yellow dyes (to give the popcorn its signature bright hue), and highly refined soy oil.
Flavacol adds 190 milligrams of sodium to Cinemark's junior bag of popcorn — fairly reasonable if you can stick to this smallest of servings. As Maya Feller, RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition, points out, "Foods with 140 milligrams or less are considered low in sodium." But go up to a true "small" bag from Cinemark and you get 450 milligrams, or 20 percent of the recommended daily value, says Feller, noting that it's "definitely not low in sodium." What's more, "If you eat all your meals out or a lot of prepackaged items, 450 milligrams can definitely push you over the edge," says Vanessa Rissetto, RD. "Not to mention the recommendation of sodium intake for someone with hypertension is 1,500 milligrams, which then means you've had about 30 percent of your daily intake in one little serving of popcorn."
You won't believe how bad AMC's smallest serving is in terms of sodium: It packs a whopping 740 milligrams. That's more than you'd get in a McDonald's cheeseburger.
Theaters may be underestimating their serving sizes: Although AMC says its small popcorn (popped in coconut oil) contains 300 calories and nine grams of saturated fat, those numbers aren't necessarily accurate. According to a 2009 study from researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the AMC "small" they tested weighed about 50 percent more than the theater chain claimed and contained a total of 370 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat, the kind that can raise your bad cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 5 to 6 percent of your calories come from saturated fat, which is equivalent to about 13 grams of saturated fat a day for most people — so 20 grams is way too much.
The Even Worse News
The "**buttery flavored" topping is all chemicals:** Here's where things go from bad to worse. The viscous concoction you can drizzle on your popcorn contains soybean oil, beta carotene (for color), buttery flavoring (i.e., chemicals) and the preservatives tertiary butylhydroquinone and dimethylpolysiloxane (more chemicals).
Tertiary butylhydroquinone (or TBHQ for short) is a fairly common additive that was approved for use in 1972 by the FDA. The FDA says it is safe to consume at the concentrations allowed in food. But really? Although more research is still needed, preliminary studies from Michigan State University have suggested a link between TBHQ and the rise in food allergies. That's not all. "According to the National Library of Medicine, cases of vision disturbances have been reported when humans consume TBHQ," says Rissetto, adding that at higher levels the chemical has been shown to cause liver enlargement, convulsions and even paralysis in lab animals.
And what about that other impossible-to-pronounce ingredient in butter-flavored toppings? Dimethylpolysiloxane is a kind of silicon used both in Silly Putty (yum!) and food that acts as an anti-foaming agent and extends the shelf life of oil. Again, the FDA puts the chemical in its "generally recognized as safe category," and we weren't able to find any incriminating evidence that says otherwise. But still, it's a chemical. Which, in general, you don't want to eat too much of if you can help it.
The one silver lining (if we had to find one) is that in the past butter-flavored toppings were made with partially hydrogenated oils. Hello, trans fats! We know that the version that Cinemark uses today, Odell's SupurKistNT, is trans-fat-free. While AMC didn't respond to our request for more information about its buttery topping, by June of next year it won't matter: That's when the FDA's ban on trans fat is supposed to take effect. (About time!)
Finally, Some Good News
Real butter is actually real: Repulsed by all the unpronounceable additives in the "buttery flavored topping" but still want that buttery taste? There may be a better way to get it: Many movie theaters (including AMC and Cinemark) offer real butter topping, which is officially called anhydrous butterfat. The term may sound suspicious, but it's basically like ghee, says Feller. "It's butter with the water and milk solids removed," she explains. (The result is a topping that won't make popcorn soggy like regular melted butter.) If you're going to indulge, the real butter is definitely better than the fake stuff.
You can make special requests: Cinemark says on its nutrition and allergen information page that you can ask the concession stand to make a special batch of Flavacol-free popcorn, which means you'll get popcorn popped in canola oil, but otherwise truly plain. So with the theater's "junior" bag, you'll have a sodium-free snack that contains 200 calories and 11 grams of fat.
The Final Verdict
While Cinemark is the only theater we could find that advertises its custom-pop option (without the buttery salt), other theaters may provide the same if you ask. So if you can stick to the smallest bag of popcorn popped only in either coconut or canola oil, then it's OK to indulge at the movies. Just remember not to tempt yourself with a larger container, even if you're splitting it or planning to only have a little. "Sitting in a movie theater and eating is an act of mindless eating," cautions Feller. "You're actually there to watch a movie. Eating becomes passive. It's really hard to say I'm going to eat half the bag and stick to it."
What Do YOU Think?
Do you order popcorn at the movies? How worried are you about the chemicals contained in both Flavacol (the butter-flavored seasoning) and the butter topping? Would you ask the concession stand to make a special Flavacol-free batch for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!