Mr. Norris, if there’s a downfall in my diet, it’s at the movie theater. I especially love hot buttered popcorn. But what’s its nutritional worth? My wife told me about your column, so I said, “I’ll ask Chuck!” – “Bellyful of Buttered Popcorn” in Birmingham, Ala.
I remember going as a young boy with my brothers, Wieland and Aaron, to the only movie theater in Wilson, Okla., where, for a dime, we could spend all Saturday afternoon watching the double feature and the serials. (Am I dating myself?)
We loved those Saturdays. With a nickel bag of popcorn on our laps, we could escape into another world. We went to Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant took us to India. My favorite movies, however, were Westerns, especially ones with John Wayne.
For those few hours in the movie theater when I was watching a movie starring “The Duke,” I became him. As an adult, I even tried to carry some of those positive cowboy characteristics into the 10 years of shooting my television series, “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
I still love the movies and a bag of popcorn as much as anyone, but there are some kernels of truth about the killer parts of theater popcorn.
Last week, I conveyed the incredible value in regular air-popped popcorn. But when it’s meshed in with the cocktail of salts, oils and other synthetic ingredients in some movie popcorn, the results can be hazardous.
In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest did a national study on popcorns and sodas sold in three of the largest theater chains across the country – Regal Entertainment Group, AMC and Cinemark. CSPI submitted samples for independent laboratory analyses regarding their nutritional value. It was the second study CSPI had conducted in 15 years, with little to no variation in the findings.
Here are some of the results: A medium-sized popcorn (20 cups) and a medium soda from Regal theaters carried the nutritional equivalent of three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders topped with 12 pats of butter. The popcorn alone (without the butter) contained 1,200 calories, 60 grams of saturated fat and 980 milligrams of sodium. If you bought a package of candy with that popcorn, you could add 300 to 1,100 empty calories (plus at least a half-day’s worth of saturated fat if it’s chocolate).
A medium popcorn (9 cups) from AMC theaters, the second-largest U.S. theater chain, did a little better, but that was mostly because of its smaller size: 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat.
A medium popcorn (14 cups) from Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain, had 760 calories but only 3 grams of saturated fat.
Let’s not forget that the above stats don’t include the second bucket of popcorn some theaters offer for free when you buy a large one.
Add to all of that the double trouble I explained last week that happens when we eat in front of the tube; the same is true in theater seats: Munching in the movies has the double whammy of giving you a truckload of calories while you’re not burning any in the activity.
The excessive saturated fat in Regal’s and AMC’s popcorn is because of the fact that their popcorn is popped in coconut oil, which – though it’s becoming “the darling of the natural-foods world,” according to The New York Times – is about 90 percent saturated fat.
Cinemark, however, changed to canola oil – resulting in much less saturated fat, for which Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at CSPI, gave a round of applause: “Cinemark gets a thumbs-up for switching.”
And all the theater chains get high-fives for knocking out the trans fatty acids by ceasing to use partially hydrogenated oils in their butter-flavored toppings.
Marisa Moore – a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists – recently explained to the Times that the primary saturated fat in coconut oil is “the good” lauric acid. Nevertheless, new federal dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of total daily dietary calories come from saturated fat – only 20 grams of a 2,000-calorie diet.
After CSPI’s initial popcorn report in 1994, “many cinema operators responded by offering their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn,” the National Association of Theatre Owners said in a statement. Though I personally haven’t seen those healthy alternatives in any theaters, I would love to, and I bet you would, too.
With the waves of health and fitness increasing over the years, it’s high time for Americans to communicate to local theater management about the hazardous kernels popping in their cinemas. And while you’re at it, you might want to ask about the origin of the popcorn and ensure that it’s organic and not genetically modified.
Imagine the statement theater chains could make today if they offered and advertised those healthier alternatives to a more health-conscious America?
The truth is, as with so many other foods and snacks, not all popcorns are created equal. So we need to be wise when it comes to kernel consumption. For our health’s sake, if we can’t forgo the popcorn in theaters, we should at least refuse the additional butter, bail on the buckets and opt for a small bag instead.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.