In 1994, on "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno quipped, "We went to the movies last night. The popcorn came in three sizes: medium, large, and 'Roger Ebert's Tub of Death.'"
Everyone expects to splurge a bit at the movies, but while your wallet may be able to handle an $8 tub of popcorn, your waistline may not -- at least according to a new report released today by the consumers group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Even popcorn did not escape the scrutiny of the report, which mentioned that even a small bag of the cinema favorite tips the scales at 700 calories and three days worth of saturated fat.
It's not the first time that CSPI has given movie popcorn two thumbs down; the new report is actually a sequel to one in 1994 that gave similar negative reviews. And like the first version, the most recent edition of CSPI's Nutrition Action Health Letter suggests moviegoers forego that trip to the concession stand altogether.
The report looked at the popcorn, soda and candy sold at the country's top three movie theater chains: Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Theaters, and Cinemark. The researchers tallied the calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium in each theater's various sizes and combos. Based on their findings, the authors warn the public that their movie-time indulgences may be a lot more indulgent than they bargained for.
"A combo at Regal (medium popcorn plus medium soda) has 1,610 calories," the authors write. "That's like eating six scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, four bacon strips, and four sausage links before the lights come up."
Though the cinema chains refused to comment on these criticisms beyond their official press releases, they all cited the same reasoning: they were merely giving customers what they wanted.
"Ultimately, our snack and refreshment options are driven by patron demand," Cinemark said in their press release. "We frequently test market additional concessions alternatives, including trail mix and other low-fat snacks... nonetheless, our popcorn, fountain soda, and candy offerings are by far our patrons' most popular and expected offerings."
"Many of our patrons like and enjoy the traditional taste and aroma of theater popcorn, as they have for decades, [and] the movie theater industry has and will continue to respond to our customers' preferences," commented the National Association of Theater Owners, that speaks for AMC, among other theaters.
Unfortunately, according to the CSPI report, that "traditional taste" comes from effectively frying the popcorn in saturated fats like coconut oil, giving the finished product, even without buttery topping, the equivalent of eight pats of butter -- and that's for a small.
Cinemark notes that these are the "snacks [patrons] desire" and is meant to be "an escape from their everyday lives."
But nutritionists note that this may be a dangerous escape. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, noted that chowing down on cinema's monstrous portion sizes of this greasy treat and washing it down with a sugary drink can turn even an occasional trip to the movies into a "calorie nightmare," Ayoob said.
Air-popped popcorn, without all the added fat, is "full of fiber" and a "whole grain, good food," Ayoob said.