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Theaters Opt for Truth in Popping : Movies: Some theaters tout kernels popped in canola oil after study’s release. Others are sticking with coconut oil.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To buy, or not to buy. For moviegoers, that is the great popcorn dilemma of 1994 in the wake of a report issued last week by a consumer group saying that the popular popped snack is dangerous to one’s health.

One moviegoer attending a showing of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” at the Edwards Temple 4 theaters in Temple City last week bypassed popcorn for a candy bar, her rationalization being, “At least I know what’s in the candy bar. With the popcorn you don’t know.”

That, however, is about to change at many Southern California theaters. By the end of last week and before this week is over, most of the region’s largest movie chains will have already begun letting consumers know just what their popcorn is popped in. They will post, either by newspaper advertising or notices in their theaters whether the corn is popped in the traditional coconut oil, which, though tasty, is high in saturated fat, or canola oil, which is much lower in saturated fat, or is air-popped.

Officially, none of the theater chains contacted by The Times last week reported that popcorn sales has been affected by news of the survey, which was conducted by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. But the theaters are taking the matter seriously. This week, the National Assn. of Theater Owners’ board of directors will address the issue at meetings in Boston.

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Some theater operators, who had already switched from coconut oil to canola oil, were miffed that the popcorn study was based on surveys of movie theaters in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, and did not sample those in health-conscious Southern California.

“My feeling is that most of the theaters here have already switched to canola oil,” said Bruce Corwin, president of the Metropolitan theater circuit.

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“To get slammed with something like this really hurts,” said Laemmle Theaters spokesman Gregory Gardner. “We rely on that popcorn and other concession sales to keep us going since so much (around 50%) of our box-office receipts go back to the distributors.” Laemmle theaters, with their art-house films and higher-scale customers, sell more bottled water and juices than popcorn or soft drinks. Beginning this week, Laemmle theaters plan to post notices that their popcorn contains only corn kernels and canola oil.

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A spokesman for Pacific Theaters said it has been making popcorn with canola oil for about two years or selling pre-packaged air-popped popcorn in its theaters. Beginning this weekend, the chain began handing statements about the content of popcorn to its patrons.

On the other hand, some Southern California exhibitors are sticking with the good old-fashioned coconut oil.

“That’s what the customers like,” said a spokesman from Mann Theaters. Nevertheless, Mann said that by Friday it will also offer customers the alternative of fresh air-popped popcorn--the type that the study said is the most healthful.

While the claims about canola oil’s healthfulness may be accurate, the actual form of the oil used is “hydrogenated,” a shortening-like substance, which, while lower than coconut oil in saturated fat, is still not as low in saturated fat as pure canola oil. And none of these are as low in fat as the air-popped variety.

Cineplex Odeon, one of the nation’s biggest chains, said it is exploring other methods of popping corn but is staying with coconut oil for the time being. In a brochure that is available to moviegoers, the company states, “We think our patrons can make sound decisions about which treat they prefer.”

By Friday, both AMC Theaters and Orange County-based Edwards Cinemas had altered their newspaper ads to boast of popcorn popped in canola oil. The General Cinema chain advertised that its popcorn has been prepared with “cholesterol-free canola oil since 1990.”

AMC’s western division theaters have been using canola oil for several years, said Gregory S. Rutkowski, vice president of AMC’s western operations.

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Edwards, Orange County’s largest movie chain, issued a statement saying that within 48 hours of the study’s release, all 79 of its theater locations had switched from coconut to canola oil.

Founder James Edwards Sr. said that several of his customers assumed a cavalier attitude straight out of Hollywood: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Indeed, Edwards reported that despite the new study, popcorn sales were up at his theaters last Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Edwards said, his theaters will begin using lower-in-saturated-fat corn oil on their popcorn by Thursday. But he said he’ll continue the practice only if customers like the taste.

As for the rallying cry by 11 heart-disease authorities along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest for theater owners to switch across the board to air-popped corn? “Forget it,” Edwards said. “It has a taste somewhat like delicious Styrofoam.”

Times staff writer Zan Dubin in Orange County contributed to this report.


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