Nightmare at the Multiplex: Killer Popcorn

We had a terrible time at the movies the other night. Almost walked out, in fact. "Sirens" was a waste of $7. For those of you who haven't made the mistake of seeing it, let's just say it was exactly like "The Witches of Eastwick" minus the acting talent, plot and direction.

But why be coy?

The movie was a two-hour excuse for supermodel Elle MacPherson to expose her breasts. And yes, in case you must know, they do defy gravity. Which may explain why my husband left the theater feeling considerably less ripped off than I.

The best part of the evening--for me, anyhow--was the popcorn. It's so low in calories, so low in fat, so delicious. It's the last guilt-free snack food.

Yeah, and Elle wants my husband's phone number.

Less than 24 hours after strapping that bucket of popcorn onto my face like a feed bag, a nonprofit consumer group in Washington announced that movie popcorn is the nutritional equivalent of Hannibal Lecter. (Thank you, Center for Science in the Public Interest! Remind me to recommend you folks for a role in the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." Your studies could plop from the skies like . . . never mind.)

What's wrong with movie popcorn?

Nothing, really. It's the cooking oil that takes a beautiful thing and turns it into something ugly. Turns out that about 70% of movie kernels are popped in artery-blockading coconut oil. Add "butter"--a word that requires quotes in connection to movie popcorn--and you have a product that could rival anything put out by Coppertone. Minus the health-enhancing sunscreen.

According to the study, a small tub of popcorn without "butter" contains 19 grams of saturated fat--almost an entire day's recommended allowance, which is 20 grams. A medium tub of "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."

Ugh. Pass the fava beans.

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So what should theater owners do? Outlaw coconut oil in favor of canola shortening, which contains far less saturated fat? Replace oil popping with air popping, which imparts nearly no saturated fat to the corn?

Hell no!

When a heart disease authority says, "It's unbelievable that theaters are still popping popcorn in this stuff when heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States," should they change their oily ways?

Hell no!

Theater owners should get their spin doctors on this immediately. Pooh-pooh the bad news. Make it look like a bunch of health-crazed nutcakes are making all the waves.

They were able to respond quickly to the bad news:

"The average person only goes to the movies five or six times a year," says one theater association executive.

"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," says another.

But what they need is a slogan. Something like: "Popcorn doesn't kill people. Worrying about not being able to enjoy popcorn kills people." Or something.

Give them a little time to fine-tune.

Anyway, when health-conscious theatergoers stop buying popcorn, they'll get the message. And by that time, maybe Elle MacPherson will have taken acting lessons, so we . . . I . . . won't mind if the popcorn doesn't taste as good as it used to.

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It's not just movie popcorn under attack in the nation's capital this week. A second junk food is under fire in the U.S. Senate: soft drinks.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont (the state that brought us perhaps the most fat-laden ice cream of all, Ben and Jerry's) has introduced a bill that would encourage schools to restrict or ban the sales of soft drinks and other foods with "minimal nutritional value." (Which would pretty much leave calcium- and protein-rich ice cream on the OK list, wouldn't it?)

Perhaps it's time for a little junk food coalition building.

After all, popcorn and Coke go together like . . . I was going to say "Disney and Main Street," but truth obliges me to adjust the simile--it now appears, thanks to Leahy, that they go together like Freddy Krueger and Elm Street.

Soft drink executives are fizzing mad.

The Coca-Cola company has asked school officials to protest on the basis that schools stand to lose income produced by vending machines--and incredibly, school officials in several states have complied.

"We make no nutritional claims for soft drinks, but they can be part of a balanced diet," a Coca-Cola spokesman told one newspaper.

I think he might have taken a hint from the killer popcorn spin doctors: "How could Coke in a school-based vending machine be bad? Most children only come to school five or six times a year."

Some people might actually believe him.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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