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The horror story starts in the lobby

Special to The Times

Jose Mier will be working the ShoWest convention floor in Las Vegas this week, peddling his Capital Churros to theater owners there for the annual convention. He envisions the fried and sugary snacks -- about 16 inches long and stuffed with Bavarian cream, caramel and strawberries -- spicing up movie theater concession stands across the nation.

In a nearby booth, Creative Concepts will be promoting Pucker Powder, a sour-powder dispenser -- choose Sweet Blue Bubblegum or Sour White Apple -- for movie fans who want to create edible sugar tubes. FuNacho will be pushing its cheese-and-chips program, American Licorice will showcase its many varieties (is the Saturday matinee crowd ready for pink strawberry twist?) while ConAgra Foods will try to entice theater owners into stocking Slim Jims and Crunch ‘n Munch.

ShoWest, which kicks off today, is the industry showcase for a variety of products -- rug shampoo as well as the latest DreamWorks animated movie. An estimated 2,700 exhibitors, distributors and vendors can shuttle from a demonstration of digital projectors to a movie-piracy presentation by the Department of Homeland Security. Studios will trot out finished movies and film clips -- “Hairspray,” “Transformers” and “Mr. Brooks” -- while independent film companies will try to generate attention for smaller movies such as “Talk to Me” and “Away From Her.”

And while everyone is trying to figure out what the summer’s biggest popcorn movie will be, theater owners also will be wrestling with another weighty question: What kind of grease should the popcorn be cooked in?

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Theater owners are determined to give audiences a thoroughly modern experience, with stadium seats, surround-sound speakers and 3-D digital projectors. But when it comes to peddling “Star Wars"-era junk food, exhibitors remain stuck in an artery-clogging time warp, health experts say: Although concessions are largely trans-fat free, the caldron-sized portions are still loaded with toxic saturated fats and tooth-rotting sugars.

Even after a highly publicized 1994 study forced many theater chains to steer away from cooking popcorn in coconut oil, several leading exhibitors -- including Regal, the nation’s largest, and AMC -- pop their kernels in the unwholesome substance. Another top chain, National Amusements, says it is considering replacing its healthier canola oil with coconut oil too.

“Most foods in concession stands are high in fat. We wish they would minimize portion sizes, but we’d really like to see the more dangerous elements removed,” says Dr. Pat Crawford, an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Mary Beth Sodus, a registered and licensed dietitian at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s weight management and wellness center, says concession stands advertising food as free of trans fat may be confusing customers.

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“You shouldn’t be told that if it’s trans-fat free, it’s OK,” Sodus says. “When they use coconut oil, they can say they are trans-fat free. But coconut oil is 86.5% saturated fat.”

The theater owners say they are only responding to consumer demand -- heart doctors may wish their patients didn’t soak their popcorn in butter-flavored sludge, but hot kernels coated in the flavorful fat is what moviegoers crave.

“The concession stand is an entertainment destination, just like a movie theater,” says Larry Etter, the president of the National Assn. of Concessionaires and vice president of the Southern chain Malco Theatres. “You don’t go there to work out like a gym.”

The nachos problem

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Just outside the convention floor is the entrance to Will Rogers Health and Fitness Fair, where ShoWest visitors can check their blood pressure and pulse. It might be good for them to monitor their vital signs before they hit the trade floor. Even with New York City’s crackdown on trans fats, healthy movie snacks remain elusive.

All the same, Etter says the 900 members of the concessionaires association are focused on reducing trans fats, and there is even a ShoWest panel on the subject Tuesday afternoon. “There are some people in the theater industry wondering, ‘What should we be doing?’ ”

Etter says some butter-flavored toppings are being reformulated to eliminate trans fat, which is an industrially created type of unsaturated fat that is neither needed in the diet nor beneficial to health. Eating trans fats is known to increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

A tougher challenge, Etter says, is reducing the amount of trans fats in the cheese sauce in which nachos swim. “They need the oil to hold the cheese particles together,” Etter says.

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Bill Towey, senior vice president of the 1,498-theater National Amusements, says the chain’s customers send sometimes conflicting messages about how healthy -- or unhealthy -- they want their concessions to be. In the circuit’s most upscale art houses, for example, patrons demand nothing less than real butter on their popcorn, Towey says.

Nonetheless, National Amusements has diversified its concession offerings, adding alternative menu items such as bottled water, fresh vegetables with low-calorie dips and fresh-squeezed juices at a number of its screens. Sales of some of these low-fat offerings have been surprisingly strong, Towey says.

“Do we have a moral obligation to make the community healthy? Yes, we feel we have some obligation,” Towey says. “I don’t think it’s up to a retailer to make a decision for a patron, but we are giving them an option. Still, the idea of a healthy snack is kind of an oxymoron.”

Although it now uses canola oil for its popcorn, National Amusements may soon switch to coconut oil, in part because that’s what moviegoers prefer, he says. “Customers like the flavor -- it tastes better,” Towey says. “It makes a much better popcorn.”

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Keeping concession stand sales healthier than the foods being sold is critical to a theater’s bottom line. Snack sales can account for as much as 45% of a theater’s revenue, and the margins can be staggering (yes, that $5 popcorn may cost the theater only a nickel or two). In its last fiscal year, the 6,403-screen Regal reported concession sales of $696.7 million, with costs of just $104.8 million.

Pop goes the diet

But the concession counter has often been caught in the middle of the public health debate. In a famous report released more than a decade ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington reported that movie theater popcorn could pack at least 400 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat into moviegoers’ diets.

“A lot of movie theaters did change the oil they used for popcorn after our study was released,” says Margo Wootan, the center’s director of nutrition policy. “But we haven’t been able to follow up since. And I don’t see a lot of healthy new options here in Washington, D.C.”

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Alice Lichtenstein, the director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, suggests patrons’ cravings are being knowingly teased at the ticket counter.

“I’ve trained my kids to bypass the concession stand, but it’s tough. People may walk into theaters when they’re not hungry, but the entrance ways are filled with the wonderful smell of freshly popped popcorn,” she says.

Sensing an opening, candy makers such as Pure Fun Confections (which is not yet in any movie theater and is not attending ShoWest) are trying to make treats with organic sugars and no artificial colors. “Consumers don’t want synthetic ingredients,” says Pure Fun founder Luna Roth, whose candies include cotton candy and lollipops.

But not everyone is headed in that direction.

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“We try to make them as healthy as possible,” Mier says of his Capital Churros, adding that his products are trans-fat free. “But the churro is not something you are going to look for as a health food.”

john.horn@latimes.com

sheigh.crabtree@latimes.com


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