Nov. 19, 2009 -- 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.
Movie Popcorn: Traditional Treat or Calorie Nightmare?
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.
The report notes that when drinks come in "money-saving" combos, going up a size (and often adding an entire can's worth of soda) for just a few cents more, makes it even more tempting for patrons to buy a drink that carries a quarter of their daily calorie intake and more than three times the daily allotment of sugar.
Ayoob agrees. "You're adding insult to injury when you get a big sugary soda." He suggests that customers consider bottled water or a sugar-free drink to help tide them over during the film. But he said that if you want to treat yourself to a regular soda, keep it to a small and remember to budget 150-300 calories.
"If you go once a month, it's not a big deal, but you still have to cut back in other areas," Ayoob said. "And just because you're going there doesn't mean you have to throw caution to the wind."
Reese's Pieces or a Porterhouse? It May Be All the Same to Your Waistline
The rationale behind oversized packages of candies at movie theaters is simple; after all, who wants to run out of snacks mid movie?
But while the side of the box will at least tell you what you're getting yourself into, the report notes that buyers should beware: the nutrition facts on king size containers are typically for a 1.5-ounce serving size, and each package may contain 3 to 4 servings.
Dr. David Katz, the director of Medical Studies in Public Health at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., says that he and his family will sometimes sneak dark chocolate into the theater, as this antioxidant-rich indulgence is a good treat for his kids. But according to Katz, the kind of chocolaty goodness proffered by the cinema snack shack is usually coated with highly processed milk chocolate, which accounts for the sky-high levels of saturated fat and sugar contained in movie candy favorites.
The report notes that a 3.5-ounce serving of Raisinets, one of the most popular choices, packs 420 calories, 60 grams of sugar, and 11 grams of saturated fat. Just 3 ounces of Milk Duds, another cinema snack classic, have 370 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat.
But among the popular candies analyzed by the report, Reese's Pieces stole the show. The report warned that indulging in the 8-ounce size commonly found in theaters will have you consuming 35 grams of saturated fat and 1,160 calories -- the equivalent of a T-bone steak plus buttered baked potato.
This doesn't mean that you have to give up your chocolate fix, Katz says.
"Shifting from highly processed... milk chocolate to dark chocolate candy would be a good thing... [but] after all, it is candy, it's not like we're trying to turn this into broccoli."
Just be aware of the portion size, Ayoob says; if the box says three servings, then plan on sharing the box three ways or taking most of it home.
Fruity Options May Not Be Guilt-Free
Though most gummy candies have little to no fat, CSPI researchers say that they often contain more than half a cup of sugar per bag. So, they say, moderation is key when it comes to sweet treats like Twizzlers, SweeTarts, and Skittles.
The 4-ounce bag of Skittles sold at theaters is almost twice the size of what you find in supermarkets. Twizzlers contain 460 calories and about 14 teaspoons of sugar per 5-ounce bag. The report cites Sour Patch Kids Watermelon flavor, with 370 calories per pack, as the most reasonable candy, mostly because they are sold in the smaller portions. Nerds, on the other hand, are usually offered in a 7-ounce carton -- a portion that puts the matchbox-size ones given out at Halloween to shame. Throwing back the whole box during a film would add up to 790 calories and 185 grams of sugar -- just a teaspoon shy of an entire cup.
So, between low-fat, sugary candy, or high-fat, slightly-less-sugary chocolate, which should we choose? Ayoob said, "At that point, I'd say look at the calories [and choose judiciously]. Fortunately, boxes are going to have the information, [unlike] tubs of popcorn -- just be sure to check the serving size."
Plan for the Peckish Patron
If snacking is a big part of your entertainment experience, one alternative is to bring your own. Sneaking in a more wholesome treat -- like homemade cookies – is something health-conscious and frugal patrons often choose to do. "The problem is you're usually not supposed to do that," Katz said, "you pretty much have to smuggle it in.
"The question is whether... we might start seeing those rules change... either they offer more nutritious food or make it legal for others to bring stuff from home," he added. "If consumers want something, they'll get it."
If this is the case, until customers start demanding healthier options, cinemas will continue offering "a day's worth of artery paste" per serving, the report writes -- so what's a peckish patron to do?
Don't go to the movies hungry: "If you're starving when you go to a movie theater, that's a trigger of overeating and this is not the kind of food you want to overeat," said Ayoob. You can shoot for a 100-200 calorie snack to tide you over, but "keep in mind, the movies is not where you go to get fed."
If rules allow, bring healthier options from home: if you can, bring a more reasonable treat, then, Ayoob adds. You can supplement with water or a diet soda to help you feel more full during the movie.
Make use of healthier options when available: though CSPI's report looked at candy and popcorn only, some cinemas, like Cinemark, now offer healthier options as well, such as non-fat sorbet, pretzel nuggets, and salt-free popcorn.
Share and keep a budget: "Fortunately, this is not what people eat on a regular basis," Ayoob said, but still, to keep things in check, "get the smallest portion, share with somebody, and remember it's a snack, not your meal."