Movie theater popcorn gets two thumbs down from advocacy group

Eating popcorn at the movies used to be fun. Now it's scary, thanks to the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the advocacy group that also has given the beat-down to Chinese food, fast food and most other things Americans love to pig out on.

The group performed lab tests on popcorn purchased from the largest movie chains, AMC and Regal, and came up with this equation: That eating a medium popcorn with a soda at a Regal theater is equal to eating three McDonald's Quarter Pounders with 12 pats of butter.

That's 1,610 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. And, just to rub it in, CSPI noted the high profits the chain must collect for selling the combo for $12 -- given how cheap popcorn and soda actually are.

"Regal and AMC are our nominees for Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic," CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley said in a written statement. "Who expects about 1,500 calories and three days' worth of heart-stopping fat in a popcorn and soda combo? That's the saturated fat of a stick of butter and the calories of two sticks of butter. You might think you're getting Bambi, but you're really getting Godzilla."

Both chains cook their popcorn in coconut oil, which is laden with unhealthy saturated fat.

To make the picture worse for the theaters, CSPI said its lab tests show that the chains are understating the nutritional content they post for the popcorn. The tests also showed how stunningly similar the calorie counts were for medium and large popcorn -- suggesting a magical use of packaging. At Regal, CSPI said it found the calories were 670,1,200 and 1,200 for small, medium and large, respectively. Regal claims 720 for a medium and 960 for a large.

AMC's large has 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat, CSPI. Now for CSPI's scary equivalent: "That's like eating a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream -- except that the popcorn has an additional day's worth of saturated fat."

The medium 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat and the small has 370 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat.

An AMC spokeswoman looked back at the last time CSPI took a swipe at movie popcorn.

"When this study was first conducted 15 years ago, AMC responded by immediately testing several other oils and products. Our guests overwhelmingly rejected these products and let us know they preferred the flavor of our popcorn as it was," AMC Vice President Sun Dee Larson told WalletPop. "But we didn't give up. To this day we still have 'better-for-you" product tests in several locations; and we will continue to expand our choices and provide our guests with the treats they enjoy when they visit our theatres. Ultimately, we are focused on our guests' moviegoing experience in total, and it includes many choices as well as mainstays like popcorn and candy."

After viewing CSPI's report, Regal issued a statement saying that it also tried to offer healthier alternatives, such as air-popped popcorn. But, Regal says, the products were not embraced by moviegoers. It also noted that, according to data from the Motion Picture Association of America, the average American attends six movies a year. "Theatre popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet," Greg Dunn,Regal's president and chief operating officer, said in the statement.

Cinemark, the third largest chain, uses healthier canola oil with its large weighing in at 910 calories with 4 grams of saturated fat. The medium has 760 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat; the small: 420 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat. The bad side for them, CSPI said, is the sodium was the highest tested at 1,500 milligrams -- a day's worth in one bucket.

CSPI said it tested samples from Regal and AMC theaters in the Washington, D.C., area and from Texas, Illinois, and Maryland for Cinemark.
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