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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Does knowledge about the nutritional content of movie snacks impact your snacking?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest released a new study yesterday on the calorie and fat content of popular movie snacks. The upshot:

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.)

It’s too bad that CSPI put that last bit in parenthesis, because that’s the real story: these snacks are chemically designed to be irresistible (to some) and sold at huge markups because that’s how the multiplexes stay in business. (Most of the ticket revenue goes back to the studios.) It answers the question asked later on by CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley:

“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 Los Angeles Timescoverage of the study noted:

The group’s second look at movie theater concessions — the last was 15 years ago — found little had changed in a decade and a half, despite theaters’ attempts to reformulate.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, because:

“According to the most recent statistics from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the average American attends six movies a year,” Regal said. “Theater popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet.”

And maybe we mostly don’t care:

It’s unclear if consumers would storm the concession stand for low-cal popcorn anyway. After the 1994 popcorn report, “many cinema operators responded by offering their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn,” the National Assn. of Theatre Owners said in a statement.

“After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard — they wanted the traditional popcorn back.”

(A more detailed breakdown of the nutritional horrors is available at ABC News. It’s entitled, “Is It Curtains for Movie Snacks?” which seems unlikely.)

I suspect that readers of FlickFilosopher.com are far more frequent moviegoers than average, which perhaps does make it more of a concern: Does knowledge about the nutritional content of movie snacks impact your snacking?

I’m at a multiplex all the time, sometimes several times per week (screening rooms don’t offer snacks, and most of them expressly forbid any kind of food or drink), and once in a while I do succumb to the delicious smells wafting from the concession stand. And I invariably feel like hell after even a small bag of movie popcorn — it’s been a long while now since I’ve even been tempted.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • David

    The only regular snack I have at the theater is a frozen coke/pepsi. This is more due to the price not the nutritional information. I mean, I am a healthy, fit, young guy, a movie nacho, or greasy popcorn once or twice a month at most doesn’t matter. If I did decide to go for snacks every movie trip I would go bankrupt long before it affected my health.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Yes. Yes it does.

    Since I’ve gotten educated about caloric content and proper portion sizes, and started eating better and less, I’ve lost a little over 20 pounds since July.

    So if I am going out, I’ll often look online and check out the calories of certain snacks. It helps to at least know, that way, if you make the decision to enjoy it anyway, you can tweak your food intake elsewhere. Like, okay, maybe I’ll have that large popcorn. But that means I can’t also have a huge bowl of alfredo at Olive Garden. Or I may decide that neither is worth it and have a healthy dinner before going out.

    People do a lot of mindless eating (mindless can = being ignorant of just how much fat/calories are in something as well as eating way too much of it).

    It’s not about deprivation, just knowledge. I don’t think movie snacks are the right target. It’s everything ELSE we eat. One large popcorn is not going to make a skinny person fat, just like one low-fat veggie burger doesn’t make a fat person skinny. It’s many choices over time that does it.

  • markyd

    I prefer not to eat while watching movies, so no, this doesn’t affect me. My wife insists on getting a diet coke whenever we go, and maybe some raisinettes or something. I would rather bypass the concessions and just watch the movie. This is not about cost or nutrition, although that stuff is obviously bad for you. Doesn’t take a study to figure that out. I just hate the noise/interruptions(not to mention smells!) that people make while snacking.

  • David

    I won’t touch the movie popcorn, or the nachos. Or any meat products behind the concession counter.
    I usually go for the highly overpriced bottle of water, or maybe a small diet soda.
    Once a year, in the summer, I opt for a box of candy.

  • amanohyo

    I used to be a movie theater manager, and the cup and bag cost us much, much more than the soda and popcorn. Movie theater prices are criminal, and I don’t understand how anyone is willing to pay them instead of bringing food in their own and/or their wife’s/girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s voluminous food-smugglin’ purse. Just throw away your trash, don’t bring bags that rustle loudly, and don’t smuggle in alcohol. And don’t give your four year old kid a drink and bag of popcorn half his/her size and expect them not to spill it all over the floor…and after they spill it, don’t send them back to the line to ask for a free refill so they can spill it on their way back to the theater.

    I think that’s it. Nutritional content affects my eating, period, but it’s the prices that stop me from buying food at a movie theater (or airport… or sporting event). I can make or buy better food and bring it for a third the price. Sure, if we all stop buying the theaters go out of business (or increase the cost of a ticket), but they deserve to with such prices. I have a personal weakness for nacho cheese and my wife loves monster pretzels, but we resist for the greater good.

  • Kimberly

    I don’t buy movie snacks because I can’t sit through an entire movie if I have a soda, and the popcorn is way too salty to eat by itself. I would not ordinarily consider this a triumph of biology, but it does save a lot of money.

  • LaSargenta

    I rarely eat the popcorn…only if I’m somewhere that makes it fresh and it is good (usually only small independent theaters). My main complaint is actaully that none of the stuff offered is anything I want to consume. If I’m there right after work, the last thing I want during an early dinner time is a giant box of candy and I don’t drink any soda except on rare occasions.

    Sometimes I find myself at some independent place that offers sandwiches. I buy those and it isn’t about the calories, it really is about getting something I prefer to eat.

    Plastic “cheeze” over chips that look and smell like they were extruded from a machine isn’t my idea of food but perhaps of caulking or insulation.

  • Grygus

    Not in the least. To be fair, I don’t pay attention to nutritional content anywhere, and snacking would seem to me the one area where it should be ignored – to me the entire point of a snack is the enjoyment; why would you try to sabotage your enjoyment with facts?

    I don’t often eat theatre popcorn but that’s most often due to other reasons: I see movies after dinner and am not tempted, some theatres have lousy popcorn, or maybe I just don’t want to pay the price. Never once have I declined it because it wasn’t fulfilling some recommended daily allowance, though. If they want to sell me more popcorn the only real avenue left to them is to make it significantly cheaper. If the cost was low enough I might even buy it when I didn’t really want it!

  • Michael

    I try to eat generally healthy, but I’m affected far more by the prices than the calorie content of movie theater fare. I’m not big on popcorn (though I do love the SMELL of a movie theater), so if I want a snack, I’ll just smuggle in a box of Junior Mints or something that I snagged at the grocery store for $.65.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t think that posting nutritional information at a concession stand is going to change much anything. Seriously, how many people are buying it for nutrition? They are buying it ’cause it is a “treat” during entertainment.

  • Isobel

    No – I always have a three scoop Ben & Jerry’s at the cinema. It’s my treat because I adore icecream and I can’t have it in the house ’cause it doesn’t last five minutes. So I know it’s unhealthy but it’s a specific treat that I look forward to.

  • Cori Ann

    I know that movie theater popcorn is probably pretty high on the list of “things that are bad for me to eat” but that’s not going to stop me from getting it anyway. I don’t always get it though–usually I just opt for some water (I gave up soda a long time ago) and candy–if they have anything decently chocolate or if they have Raisinets. Though these days I go to the movies a lot less–used to just take myself once a week, but now with a three month old to take care of, I can only go if someone is willing to babysit. I’ve only been to one movie since she was born. Sadly that means I will probably get the popcorn almost every time I go now because it is more of a “treat.” I think that’s the crux of it–the snacks at the theater are a “treat” to most people, and they are ingrained in our minds as part of the experience, so I doubt posting calorie content is going to stop the majority of the population. Just like posting the calorie content on menus at restaurants and fast food joints doesn’t stop the majority of people who really just want to eat that fried whatever instead of the salad.

  • Bluejay

    I’m with markyd and Kimberly. I just prefer to concentrate on the movie without the distraction of snacking or bladder issues halfway through. Occasionally, if the timing means we’ll be hungry at the theater, my wife and I will sneak in a homemade sandwich, split it during the pre-show, and that’s it.

  • Movie theater prices are criminal, and I don’t understand how anyone is willing to pay them instead of bringing food in their own and/or their wife’s/girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s voluminous food-smugglin’ purse.

    I’ve actually gone with the movies with someone who insisted on bringing their own food. Indeed, I suspect many people do so, but because it seems gauche to most movie-goers, few will admit to it.

    And when I was young, my parents usually took us out to eat at a restaurant either before or after the movie.

    Then again, they’ve also insisted on dining out at Olive Garden and it’s quite obvious how MaryAnn feels about that place. ;-)

  • i also worked in a movie theatre when i first started out and my first job was concessions. i never liked popcorn but after cleaning out popcorn machines, rebagging the stuff and storing it to be used the next day — you couldn’t force it down my throat! also, as pointed out — we never counted the popcorn, we counted the cups for the soda, and the bags for the popcorn and the actual boxes of the waaaaay overpriced candy.

    i gave up soda and sweet juice drinks a couple of years ago… and i only eat dark chocolate, so i usually bring my own snacks to the theatre now. i try to remember a bottle of water because i really *hate* paying for water.

    but i must admit that none of my decision had anything to do with the calorie content and nutrition (or lack thereof).

  • JoshB

    I don’t buy anything from concession stands because it’s horrible for you, overpriced, and most important of all, it’s just not that tasty.

    If I’m gonna treat myself to something unhealthy I want to get my money’s and calories’ worth. I’m talking a kobe beef burger with wasabi mayo and gourmet local cheese. Popcorn and soda isn’t close to worth it.

  • MaryAnn

    Those of you who follow my tweets may have noticed last Saturday that I tweeted about the truffled-buttered popcorn and glass of wine I had at a moderately fancy hotel bar while killing time before a screening. That was very tasty (and worth the far dearer price tag over concession stands), and I wish there was a theater in NYC that served upscale treats like that. The popcorn tasted like it was air-poppped, but then covered in real butter flavored with real truffle mushrooms, it was very satisfying and likely not anywhere near as artery clogging as the fake fat they use in multiplexes.

  • misterb

    I don’t get why theaters don’t serve alcohol. If they can charge $6 for worthless popcorn, they ought to be able to charge $10 for a Budweiser. With that kind of markup, they could afford to card. And let’s face it, most if not all of the movies they show would be better after a couple of drinks.

  • RogerBW

    misterb: because of the bizarre American relationship with alcohol (not saying the UK’s necessarily better, but it’s quite different). Lots of their core audience isn’t of legal drinking age, and probably wouldn’t be allowed in to a place that could serve booze.

    Personally I don’t see the problem with going a few hours without eating something. If I’m going out to a film I’ll eat beforehand or afterwards, either at home or somewhere that has decent and less-overpriced food.

  • Accounting Ninja

    @misterb-it would also be an underage drinking nightmare. In a dark theater once the lights have gone down…the kids could drink their booze that the adults bought and no one would know.

    I also supervised a theater when I was 19 (hey, we should start a club!). Even though I saw the gross gelatinous tub of pre-warmed “butter” and spent many nights sweeping old popcorn off the floors, I still like a big bag of movie popcorn once and a while. :)

    MAJ that truffled buttered popcorn sounds sooooo good *droooool*…

  • Pollas

    Not at all. I rarely eat popcorn at movies and when I do I only have a little from what my family shares among four of five of us. Sometimes I’ll have a drink, but it just depends on my mood at the time.

  • Paul

    @Accounting Ninja; from a fellow battle of the bulger, congratulations on losing 20 pounds. I’ve been struggling with my weight for years, and I know how hard it is.

    As for the rest of you, I do sometimes succumb to a yellow bag of M&Ms, but only at the cheap theater where the ticket is half price and there’s no trailers and advertisments that make me wait a half an hour to watch the movie. But no, I do not eat their popcorn or drink pop anywhere.

    Just yesterday I gave my students menus and assigned some students to be waiters and waitresses with instructions to get people to eat so they could get bigger tips. Then I pulled a bait and switch and told each student how many calories they’d eaten compared to how many they should have eaten. Most of the students managed to eat 2 – 3 times as many as they should have for one meal, and a few ate more than a day’s worth.

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