Nov. 19, 2009 -- Would you scarf down a pound of baby back ribs and a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream or maybe two Big Macs while watching the latest release at the movies?
That's what a new report says you’re getting in terms of fat and calories with a large tub of movie theater popcorn, and that's before they pour on the buttery topping.
Just when you thought it was safe to escape the cold and cuddle up with your favorite snacks at the local cineplex, the people at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are popping the lid on movie theater popcorn's calorie, fat, and salt content.
The report updates the organization's infamous 1994 movie theater popcorn exposé with new nutritional information on movie snacks offered by America's three largest movie chains: Regal, AMC, and Cinemark.
Researchers found movie theater popcorn offerings range from 400 to 1,200 calories, with one to three days' worth of saturated fat and up to 1,500 milligrams of sodium. Make it a combo and add 300 to 1,110 empty calories worth of candy and another 150 to 500 calories from a sugary soft drink to wash it all down.
"To save you money (how thoughtful), theaters offer combos. For example, for a mere $12 Regal hands you a medium popcorn and a medium soft drink, and AMC dishes up a large popcorn and a large soda," write CSPI researchers in their report published in the Nutrition Action Healthletter. "Where else can you be so distracted (by the movie) that you don't realize you've just swallowed 1,400 to 1,600 calories?"
Researchers sent samples of popcorn and toppings from three different theaters belonging to each of the chains to an independent lab for analysis and compared their findings to the chains' own nutritional information.
The results showed Regal's medium and large popcorns packed the biggest punch, with each containing 20 cups of popcorn, 1,200 calories, and 60 grams of saturated, artery-clogging fat. That's the equivalent of two Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizzas, plus an extra two days' worth of saturated fat.
According to Regal, the medium contains 720 calories and the large has 960 calories, but the CSPI found both the medium bag and large tub containers held the same 20 cups of popcorn with the higher calorie count.
AMC's 16-cup large popcorn tub didn't fare much better, weighing in at 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat.
Both Regal and AMC popped their popcorn in coconut oil, which contains 90% saturated fat.
Cinemark earned kudos in the report for being the only major chain to pop their popcorn in non-hydrogenated canola oil. As a result, their popcorn offerings contained only a fraction of the saturated fat content of the others, ranging from 2 grams in the 420 small size to 5 grams in the 910-calorie large popcorn bucket.
All of the chains used a similar "buttery" non-hydrogenated soybean oil topping that adds about 120-130 calories per tablespoon. Some Cinemark theaters also offer a real butter topping that adds 9 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
Even without the buttery topping, researchers found movie theater popcorn is seasoned with an unhealthy dose of salt. Sodium levels ranged from 210 milligrams in the smallest 6-cup offering from AMC to a heart-stopping 1,500 milligrams in the large tub from Cinemark. That's an entire day's worth of sodium before the credits roll.
Of course, all that salt makes you thirsty, so theaters offer tempting "cost-saving" combos of popcorn and sugary sodas and candy to help wash it all down. But before long the calories can add up.
"A combo at Regal (medium popcorn plus medium soda) has 1,610 calories," the researchers write. "That's like eating six scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, four bacon strips, and four sausage links before the lights come up."
The report shows a small soda ranges from 16 ounces at Cinemark to 32 ounces at Regal. Assuming about a quarter of the cup is filled with ice, a small soda will still set you back another 150 to 300 calories worth of sugar unless you get a diet soda or water.
A large ranges from 44 ounces (5 1/2 cups) at Cinemark or AMC to 54 ounces (nearly 7 cups) at Regal for an extra 400 to 500 calories and 26 to 33 teaspoons of sugar.
Researchers say the oversized packages of candy at the concession counter aren't for the faint-hearted either. Calorie counts range from 300 for a 3.5-ounce box of Sour Jacks to a whopping 1,160 for the 8-ounce bag of Reese's Pieces, which also packs 35 grams of saturated fat.
Experts say the best nutritional advice to survive your next movie with minimal shock to your system is to share a small, unbuttered serving of popcorn with a friend and ask the theater to pop you a batch without salt (all three of the chains contacted by the CSPI said they would do that) and wash it down with water.