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Movie-theater food: A scary story

Consumer Reports magazine: March 2012

Anyone over PG-13 knows that movie-theater food bears no resemblance to tofu and sprouts. But our new tests show it can be a nutritional nightmare on Elm Street.

We tested the largest available sizes of popcorn (with and without butter-flavored sauce), cheese nachos, pretzel pieces with cheese, and Coke or Pepsi from three of the nation’s biggest movie-theater chains: AMC, National Amusements, and Regal. For each chain, food came from two or three theaters in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. We analyzed popcorn for calories, total fat, sodium, and fiber; nachos and pretzel pieces for all but fiber; and sodas (with ice) for calories and sugars.

It turns out that a large tub of buttered popcorn and a large Coke can supply all the calories the average adult is supposed to eat in a day. OK, maybe you’d share that popcorn, but even one serving of pretzel pieces with cheese can provide up to half a day’s calories, almost half a day’s fat, and more than a day’s sodium.

The table below lists nutrient ranges for each food. Amounts for a given size (and nutrition) varied, even within a chain. AMC gave us 18 to 23 cups of unbuttered popcorn in a “large” tub; National Amusements, 14 to 16 cups; Regal, 20 to 25 cups. At AMC, the buttered popcorn’s fat ranged from 69 to 113 grams (the equivalent of 17 to 28 pats of butter). You could blame an individual worker’s heavy hand with butter topping, but even unbuttered popcorn varied in fat content: 49 to 81 grams at AMC, for instance.

A snack-by-snack summary

Popcorn. Some large tubs with butter had three-fourths of the 2,000 calories most people should eat in a day and up to 174 percent of the recommended daily fat limit, 65 grams. Sodium levels ranged from 436 to 2,038 milligrams at the theaters where we bought. That’s as high as 89 percent of the recommended daily limit.

By our estimates, even medium and small tubs of popcorn with butter would have had as much as 118 percent of the daily fat limit, and 318 to 1,080 calories.

Skipping butter lowered fat and calories by roughly 20 percent on average.

Fiber is no reason to eat that much popcorn, but at least it’s there: Our large tubs with butter had 18 to 34 grams, up to 121 percent of the recommended daily value.

Nachos. Most had about 800 calories and about 40 to 50 grams of fat, much more than half the recommended total fat per day. Nachos tended to have even more sodium than popcorn: at least 45 percent of the daily limit.

Pretzels. Sodium was the issue here, too. A few of the pretzel snacks we bought exceeded the daily limit.

Soda. The large and jumbo colas had 96 to 174 grams of sugars—about 24 to 44 teaspoons—and 384 to 696 calories.

Hungry?

Mix and match, and the numbers climb: That large tub of buttered popcorn and soda can provide not only a day’s calories but also almost two days’ worth of fat and almost a cup of sugars. For about the same number of calories, you could eat 1 cup of Cheerios with low-fat milk and a banana, 2 ounces of turkey on whole-wheat bread with a tablespoon of mayo, 2 cups of lettuce with tomato and 2 tablespoons of reduced-fat dressing, 6 ounces of salmon with a cup of green beans and a baked potato, and a glass of wine. Oh—plus a slice of chocolate cake with icing.

If the nutrition doesn’t scare you, the prices may. We paid up to $8 for large popcorn, $7 for nachos, $5.50 for pretzel pieces with cheese, and $5.75 for a jumbo soda.

Bottom line. You can’t sneak your own food into movie theaters, so eat sensibly beforehand, buy the smallest size of theater treats, or share. If you watch movies at home, have air-popped popcorn or microwave it yourself. Orville Redenbacher Light, for example, has 120 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 190 milligrams of sodium per serving, which is about 5½ cups when popped.

Nutrition nightmare

Largest size Calories Fat (g) Sodium (mg) Sugars (g)
Popcorn, buttered 844 to 1,591 54 to 113 436 to 2,038
Popcorn, plain 697 to 1,269 37 to 81 365 to 2,013
Cheese nachos 728 to 907 38 to 54 1,033 to 3,132
Pretzels and cheese 581 to 1,056 15 to 32 743 to 3,556
Soda 384 to 696 96 to 174
   

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