The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) first blew the whistle on movie theater popcorn in a 1994 report that showed movie theater popcorn as being full of artery-clogging fat.
"Immediately, there were changes," says Jayne Hurley, RD, a CSPI nutritionist. "Many theaters switched to healthier oil within weeks, but through the years they have gone back to old unhealthy coconut oil," Hurley says.
The CSPI revisited the popcorn issue again in 2009 – and things seem to have gone from bad to worse.
Movie theater popcorn contains anywhere from 400 to 1,200 calories, not to mention one to three days' worth of artery-clogging saturated fat and a whopping 1,500 milligrams of sodium.
And if the intrepid concession stand employee manages to up-sell you (say by adding some candy or sugary soda to go with that popcorn), then your calories will keep on going Up.
The latest report updates the organization's infamous 1994 exposé with new nutritional information on the movie snacks offered by America's three largest movie chains: Regal, AMC, and Cinemark.
“The biggest change is that the third largest theater chain – Cinemark -- is popping their popcorn in heart-healthy canola oil, while the other two are still using coconut oil, which means you're getting an amazing amount of saturated fat in popcorn,” Hurley tells WebMD.
Hurley gives coconut oil an XXX rating when it comes to health.
“Cinemark deserves credit for switching from one of the worst oils to one of the best, but it still ain't diet food,” she says. “It is not kind to your waistline even though may be kind to your heart."
WebMD reached out to several theater industry representatives to see if they have any plans to offer healthier snacking alternatives to moviegoers. Andy DiOrio, a spokesman for AMC Theaters, based in Kansas City, Mo, declined to comment. Regal Entertainment Group did not return phone calls.
Some movie houses now offer flavoring packets to sprinkle on your popcorn, but popcorn connoisseurs should beware, Hurley says.
“The big problem with these packets is that they look innocent, but they are really just salt, and some flavors may have trans fat in them, she says. Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Trans fats are known to increase levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels and lower levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels.
“These add insult to injury in terms of sodium because they already salt the popcorn when they pop it,” Hurley says.