New Lab Tests of Movie Theater Popcorn Show It’s Still the Godzilla of Snacks

WASHINGTON—It's hard to picture someone mindlessly ingesting three McDonald's Quarter Pounders with 12 pats of butter while watching a movie. But according to new laboratory analyses commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, that food is nutritionally comparable to what you’d find in a medium popcorn and soda combo at Regal, the country’s biggest movie theater chain: 1,610 calories and three days’ worth—60 grams—of saturated fat. (Nutrition aside, that combo costs $12—for raw ingredients that must cost Regal pennies.)

"Regal and AMC are our nominees for Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic," said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. "Who expects about 1,500 calories and three days’ worth of heart-stopping fat in a popcorn and soda combo? That’s the saturated fat of a stick of butter and the calories of two sticks of butter. You might think you’re getting Bambi, but you’re really getting Godzilla."

Regal says that its medium popcorn has 720 calories and that its large has 960. But CSPI's lab tests found that those numbers were understated. Regal’s medium and large sizes each had 1,200 calories and, thanks to being popped in coconut oil, 60 grams of saturated fat. (The large size looks bigger, thanks to its titanic tub, but it costs a dollar more and comes with a free refill.) A "small" at Regal has 670 calories and 34 grams of saturated fat. That’s about as many calories as a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza—except the popcorn has three times the saturated fat. Even shared with another person, that size provides nearly an entire day’s worth of the kind of fat that clogs arteries and promotes heart disease. And every tablespoon of "buttery" oil topping adds another 130 calories. Asking for topping is like asking for oil on French fries or potato chips, according to CSPI.

AMC, the second largest theater chain, also pops in coconut oil but has smaller serving sizes. Its large popcorn has 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. That's like eating a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream—except that the popcorn has an additional day’s worth of saturated fat. A medium has 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat; and a small has 370 calories and a day’s worth—20 grams—of saturated fat. (Like Regal, AMC reports calorie counts lower than those returned in CSPI's lab tests.)

Third-largest Cinemark pops in heart-healthy canola oil. A large has 910 calories with 4 grams of saturated fat; a medium has 760 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat; and a small has 420 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat. Though popping in canola gives this chain’s popcorn far less saturated fat than its competitors, it's almost as high in calories and has the most sodium—about twice as much as Regal or AMC. With 1,500 milligrams of sodium—a day's worth of sodium for most people—a large popcorn without topping from Cinemark will be less likely to clog your arteries but more likely to elevate your blood pressure. And while Cinemark uses a "buttery" oil topping similar to the toppings used at Regal and AMC, at some outlets, particularly in the West, it uses a topping made with real butter. That version has 9 grams—half a day’s worth—of saturated fat per tablespoon.

CSPI also took a look at the sodas and candies sold at the movies. A small non-diet soda ranges from 150 calories at Cinemark to 300 calories at Regal. Mediums have 300 calories at AMC and Cinemark and 400 calories at Regal. With 33 teaspoons of sugar in nearly 2 quarts—54 ounces—Regal has the most outsized large soda, with 500 empty calories.

The oversized boxes and bags (four to five ounces) of candy sold at movie chains are universally high in calories. A 5-ounce bag of Twizzlers has 460 calories and 15 teaspoons of sugar. A 7-ounce box of Nerds has 790 calories and 46 teaspoons of sugar. Chocolate candies like Butterfinger Minis, Raisinets, Sno-Caps, or M&M's have between 400 and 500 calories and at least a half day’s worth of saturated fat. An 8-ounce bag of Reese's Pieces is just a cup of candy. But with 1,160 calories and 35 grams of saturated fat, it's like eating a 16-ounce T-bone steak plus a buttered baked potato.

"Sitting through a two-hour movie isn't exactly like climbing Mt. Everest," Hurley said. "Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?"

The study, published as the cover story in the December issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, updates a famous exposé the group conducted 15 years ago. For Regal and AMC, CSPI tested samples from theaters in the Washington, D.C., area. For Cinemark, samples came from Texas, Illinois, and Maryland.