Air-popped popcorn, without all the added fat, is "full of fiber" and a "whole grain, good food," Ayoob said.
But it also "really tastes like cardboard," said Andrew F. Smith, a professor of Food Studies at the New School and author of "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America."
"The flavor of popcorn was intentionally bred out in the 1950s [because] people don't really like the taste of traditional popcorn," Smith said. "What they wanted was the taste of the butter and salt you added in."
Today, people's appetites haven't changed much. But according to a press release issued this week from the National Association of Theater Owners, "many cinema operators responded by offering their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn...[and] movie patrons in droves made their voices heard, they wanted traditional popcorn back."
President and COO of Regal Entertainment Group, Greg Dunn, agreed, commenting in a press release that when they offered alternatives, "air-popped popcorn [was] not well received by our theatre guests."
So, do the cinemas have their hands tied? Ayoob argues that anyone who has made popcorn at home would probably disagree. And Cinemark, the nation's third largest movie chain, at least has addressed the issue of saturated fat. Unlike Regal and AMC, they pop their popcorn in non-hydrogenated canola oil, which brings the saturated fat content down to 2-4 grams per serving, even for their large sizes, though overall fat content stays roughly the same.
So, until theaters give air-popped popcorn another shot, the researchers say it's important to be aware of how much you munch.
"Budget 670 [calories] for a small and 1,200 for a medium or large," the authors of the CSPI report write. "You could think of each small as a Pizza Hut personal pan pepperoni pizza and each medium or large as two."
Ayoob said, "If you absolutely need it, treat it like a snack... and 20 cups [the size of Regal's medium and, curiously enough, their large] is not a snack -- it's overeating by any stretch of the imagination."
Ayoob recommends that snacks should be 100-200 calories and that moviegoers should go for the smallest size, skip the topping, and share with a friend -- or two, or three.
Nothing washes down movie popcorn like a tasty beverage. But, with a small-sized soda ranging from Cinemark's 16-ounce offering to Regal's 32-ounce cup, the report warns it can be difficult to gauge exactly how much soda you're getting.
Since sodas have roughly the same ingredients wherever you get them, CSPI ranked the sizes of beverages at the theater. As with popcorn, Regal offered the most generous portions; patrons can wash down their 20-cup large popcorn with a 54-ounce cup of cola. A "large" of this proportion, according to the report, contains 500 calories and 33 teaspoons of sugar -- about the amount needed to bake a chocolate cake.
Cinemark offered the most moderate options; their small holds only one-and-a-half cans worth of soda, though their 44-ounce large (the same size as AMC's) is only slightly less massive than Regal's.