Movie Popcorn: Is Ignorance Bliss?

April 27th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

It’s the FDA vs. movie theater chains over whether to post popcorn calorie counts.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I remember when I began forgoing a giant tub of popcorn (with the several extra pumps of glowing orange “butter”) at the movie theater. I was a sophomore in college, perhaps still a little afraid of putting on the “freshman fifteen” (hey, even as a sophomore, you’re not out of the woods). And the Center for Science in the Public Interest had just declared my favorite treat a public nuisance.

For those of us who didn’t understand the nutritional gravity that “37 grams of saturated fat” represented, the CSPI helpfully put it in these terms: “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” On morning shows, they drove the message home by stuffing all those things right into one popcorn tub for the television cameras. It wasn’t really the popcorn itself that was sinister, we learned, but the coconut oil used to cook it. Later, chains such as United Artists, AMC and Loews announced they’d stop using coconut oil altogether.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath explained the popcorn scare this way: “This is an idea success story…The people at CSPI knew something about the world that they needed to share. They figured out a way to communicate the idea so that people would listen and care. And the idea stuck.”

Which makes the most recent movie popcorn debate resonate – for this former popcorn-avoider, at least.  At issue: The FDA is now scrabbling with big movie theater chains over an FDA proposal to expand a federal law requiring restaurants with more than 20 locations to list calorie counts. The National Association of Theatre Owners wants an exemption from the rule.

The real issue, writes WalletPop’s Sarah Gilbert, is that theaters want to protect their artery-clogging cash cow, detailing how a $6 tub of popcorn costs the chain as little as 15 or 20 cents.

TIME Magazine cites a study by the American Journal for Preventive Medicine that suggests theater owners don’t have too much to worry about, since Americans have largely ignored posted fat and salt contents within fast food chains and ordered what they wanted. What’s a fun movie without a fun tub of crunchy dripping butter, after all?

Plus, asks a Los Angeles Times editorial, what’s the sense in making a “melodrama out of a molehill”? No fan of a nanny state, the editorial still posits that while people should decide for themselves what they want to eat and drink, “part of empowering consumers to make smart decisions is giving them basic information, and that includes the fact that a large popcorn might contain more calories than they're supposed to eat in an entire day.” And you can, ahem, weigh in here.