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The Weighty Truth About Movie Popcorn

Okay, so you skip the popcorn the next time you go to the movies. Can you dine at the candy counter?

If you're only talking about fat content, according to a CSPI survey, the answer is "yes." Sugar-based candies that don't contain chocolate are often fat-free. The group's Nutrition Action newsletter cites such brands as Good & Plenty, Twizzlers and Gummi Bears, which contain no fat.

By contrast, the smallest candy counter serving of KitKat contains 26 grams of fat, 18 saturated. Other totals for the smallest boxes or bars: "Almond Joy," 26 and 16; Nestle's Crunch, 26 and 14; and Reese's Pieces, 16 and 14. If you insist on a chocolate taste, a better choice is Junior Mints, with eight grams of fat, one saturated. Of course, all of the candies are loaded with sugar, which presents its own problems, especially for diabetics. Good & Plenty is lowest in sugar of the non-fat brands tested, with 38 grams in the smallest serving. One of the highest combos was Raisinets, with 62 grams of sugar and 18 grams of fat, 10 saturated.

Sodas? Diet pop presents few problems. But the super-sized servings of regular pop contain sugar and calories to rival the candies. "If you order a large popcorn and a large (44 oz) Coke," CSPI nutritionist Jayne Hurley says, you've consumed about 2,100 calories--"almost enough for the next 24 hours." And don't even think about ordering some candy to go along with them.

Popcorn as prepared in the nation's movie theaters is a dangerous food. So says a new study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which blames the coconut oil used to pop the corn.

Popcorn can be a healthy snack, high in fiber, according to Jayne Hurley, a nutritionist with the Washington, D. C.-based consumer group. But that's assuming the corn is air-popped, or, at best, popped with healthy liquid corn or peanut oils.

Most of the nation's movie theaters pop it with coconut oil, which creates the appetizing aroma wafting from the refreshment stand. "But coconut oil is 86 percent saturated fat," Hurley says. "Lard is only 38 percent." Some theaters claim to pop corn with healthier canola oil, she said, but in fact they're using canola shortening, which has four times the cholesterol-raising fats of the liquid form.

Hurley said that CSPI collected sample buckets of popcorn from 12 theaters representing six national chains in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. Laboratory analysis showed that a large serving of the popcorn--even without butter or "butter-flavored topping"--contained 80 grams of fat, 53 of them saturated.

"That's three day's worth, about the same as six Big Macs," she said. "If you add the topping, the fat goes up to 130 grams."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is the same group that recently issued reports criticizing the amount of artery-clogging fats in restaurant servings of Italian and Chinese food. Judging by their latest report, you'd almost be better off eating their "heart attack on a plate," fettucini Alfredo (made with cream, oil, butter, eggs and cheese) instead of munching popcorn during your next movie. "For example," Hurley said, "you could eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner, and you'd still get more artery-clogging fat in a medium 'buttered' popcorn. The salt isn't good for you, either."

The CSPI announced its findings Monday morning at a Congressional hearing. They will be published in the group's Nutrition Action newsletter. Hurley told the Sun-Times there are three things consumers can do: (1) Bring air-popped popcorn from home, if the theater will let you; (2) Ask theaters to offer air-popped corn, or popcorn made with liquid corn or peanut oil; (3) Ask for no salt. The earlier widely-publicized CSPI studies led some Italian and Chinese restaurant owners to offer low-fat dining choices, but movie popcorn may not adapt easily to a heart-healthy makeover. "People like the way movie popcorn tastes," says Howard Lichtman, a spokesman for the giant Cineplex Odeon chain. "None of those other oils provide you with the aroma or the taste that meets the expectations of our patrons.

"People ask us, 'Why can't I get it to taste this good at home?' Coconut oil makes the difference. Does it have more fat than the other oils? Yes, but if you're not consuming popcorn on a daily basis, if you're using it as an occasional treat, that's fine. It's like ice cream."

What about offering moviegoers a choice of popcorns? "It's not like it's equally substitutable," Lichtman said. "It's a question of the quality of what we're selling. And you'd probably have longer lines at the refreshment stand."

Alternative oils present other problems, according to Sandy Chaney of Chicago's Music Box theater: "Those oils gunk up the poppers and make the machinery really hard to clean." That's true, sighs Hurley: "Most of the coconut oil ends up inside you, not the machine." Hurley said she estimates that about 60 percent of the fats in a bucket of popcorn are added in popping, and about 40 percent are in the topping. "And real butter might be slightly worse than 'topping' products, because you're still getting the fat, plus now you're getting cholesterol, too."

She said the group's findings came as a surprise even to her, a professional nutritionist. "My husband and I used to split a small popcorn at the movies. I didn't think that could do much damage. But the smallest bag we tested--the kid-size at Cineplex Odeon--contained 20 grams of fat, 14 saturated. That's three-quarters of the saturated fat you should eat in a day. And with topping, you're up to 37 grams--almost three Big Macs."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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