A medium-size popcorn and medium soft drink at the nation's largest movie chains pack the nutritional equivalent of three Quarter Pounders topped with 12 pats of butter, according to a review released Wednesday by the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The group's second look at movie theater concessions - the last was 15 years ago - found little has changed in the last decade-and-a-half, despite some moves by movie theaters to reformulate.
CSPI said it bought multiple servings of popcorn at movie chains Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Movie Theatres and Cinemark and had them analyzed in an independent laboratory.
It reported a Regal medium popcorn (20 cups) contains 1,200 calories, 60 grams of saturated fat, and 980 milligrams of sodium. That's without the buttery topping that can be drizzled -- or poured -- on the popcorn, which adds 200 more calories and 3 grams of saturated fat per 1.5 tablespoons.
An AMC medium popcorn did better because of its smaller size -- nine cups -- at 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat, and a 14-cup Cinemark medium popcorn was 760 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat (in both cases, before adding buttery topping).
One problem is that Regal and AMC pop their popcorn in coconut oil, which is about 90 percent saturated fat, noted Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at CSPI, which is based in Washington, D.C. Cinemark pops its corn in canola oil, which explains its lower saturated-fat levels.
In two positive steps, trans fatty acids were not found in the samples, Hurley added, and theaters have stopped using hydrogenated oils in the butter-flavored toppings.
The study is in the December issue of CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Regal, in a statement, said that movie popcorn is not meant to be daily fare and that it acknowledges some of the food it sells is healthier than others.
Several chains either did not respond to requests for comment or said they would have no comment.