Study Casts Movie Popcorn as Health Villain


Hamburgers, hot dogs--and now popcorn. What’s next on the killjoy list of yummies deemed dangerous to your health?

The popcorn served at most movie theaters can help give you heart disease, according to a study released Monday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group.

That’s because artery-clogging coconut oil high in saturated fat is used to pop roughly 70% of the corn being pushed across refreshment counters, the study found.


Even a small offering of popcorn without “butter” topping contains an entire day’s recommended allowance of saturated fat, a major cause of heart disease, according to the report. A medium-sized “buttered” popcorn at a typical theater contains “more fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac-with-fries lunch and a steak dinner with all the trimmings combined,” the study said.

“Theater popcorn ought to be the ‘Snow White’ of snack foods, but it’s been turned into ‘Godzilla’ by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil,” said center Executive Director Michael Jacobson.

Eleven heart-disease authorities joined the center in urging the heads of major theater chains to switch to air-popped corn, a lightly oiled-and-salted product that Jacobson said is delicious and contains 70% less fat than corn popped in coconut oil.

“We’ve known for 30 years that coconut oil raises blood cholesterol more than butterfat, beef tallow, lard or any other fat or oil,” said Dr. Stephen Havas of the University of Maryland Medical School. “It’s unbelievable that theaters are still popping popcorn in this stuff when heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States.”

The survey covered popcorn sold at United Artists, AMC, Cineplex Odeon, Loew’s and other theaters in the San Francisco, Chicago and Washington areas. A laboratory in Texas did the nutritional analyses, which included calorie content.

For example, at Cineplex Odeon theaters, a small serving (about seven cups) of popcorn cooked in coconut oil and served without butter contains 398 calories, the study found. At AMC, a medium portion (11 cups) with butter has 910 calories, and at United Artists, a large size (about 16 cups) with butter contains 1,221 calories.


Theater industry executives said that, while they take the study seriously, their popcorn needs to be put in perspective.

“The average person goes to the movies only five or six times a year, and when they settle in with popcorn, candy and a soft drink, they know they’re not on the Pritikin regime--they’re relaxing,” said Bill Kartozian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners in North Hollywood.

“Also,” he continued, “a lot of people who go to the show don’t have butter added to their popcorn, and a lot of people share, so the portions referred to (by the study) should be divided by some number.”

A spokesman for Cineplex Odeon told the Associated Press that popcorn is “not a health issue, it’s a small indulgence.” He said that coconut oil provides the taste and aroma craved by customers.

“Most people ask us why they can’t get their home popcorn to taste as good as theater popcorn. The answer is the coconut oil,” said Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing for the Toronto-based chain of 235 U.S. theaters.

The study found that some theaters are showing signs of health consciousness. A multiplex theater in northern Virginia advertised that it was “now popping with canola oil, low in saturated fats, no cholesterol.”


Trouble is, the study discovered, many theaters are using partially hydrogenated canola shortening, which contains four times the fat of canola oil .

How Fat Content Varies

Most movie theaters make popcorn in coconut oil; a few use canola shortening. Some stores sell air-popped popcorn. A look at a typical “small” bag of popcorn (seven cups) prepared each way.

* Popped in coconut oil, with butter-flavored topping:

Total fat: 50 grams

Saturated fat: 26 grams

632 calories

* Popped in coconut oil, plain:

Total fat: 27 grams

Saturated fat: 19 grams

398 calories

* Popped in canola shortening, plain

Total fat: 22 grams

Saturated fat: 3 grams

361 calories

* Commercial air-popped (lightly sprayed with soybean oil), plain:

Total fat: 6 grams

Saturated fat: 1 gram

210 calories

* Guidelines: Food and Drug Administration guidelines recommend a maximum of 65 grams of fat, including 20 grams of saturated fat, in a 2,000-calorie diet.

Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest