Nutrition Action Healthletter
May 1994 — U.S. Edition

Popcorn: Oil in a Day’s Work

The poor coconut. It may taste delicious, but an astonishing 86 percent of its oil is saturated, the kind that raises cholesterol (lard is "only" 38 percent saturated). Yet oil processors told us that roughly seven out of every ten movie theaters still pop in it (in May 1994, when the survey was originally done).

"There are a lot of misconceptions about coconut oil," says Teresa Waller of United Artists, the largest chain. "Not a lot goes on the popcorn." Oh yeah? So why did the smallest servings we found (a kid-size at Cineplex Odeon or a small bag at AMC) contain 20 grams of fat, 14 of them saturated? That’s close to three-quarters of your sat fat limit for an entire day.

A large popcorn had about 80 grams of fat, more than 50 of them saturated. That’s almost three day’s worth of sat fat, or what you’d get from six Big Macs. And that’s if you skip the "butter." Even though the topping is probably butterless, its partially hydrogenated soybean oil adds both saturated and trans fat. Trans is an unsaturated fat that raises cholesterol, perhaps as much as sat fat does.

Succumb to the "butter" on your large popcorn and you’ll boost the fat to close to 130 grams (no kidding). Worse yet, the cholesterol raising fat soars to almost four day’s worth. But what’s another two Big Macs when you’re already up to six?

And here’s the real killer: the popcorn you buy could be worse. According to the lab report, the samples we collected were only 70 percent saturated coconut oil is 86 percent. (Some theaters in our sample might have used some corn oil, although they denied it.)

Canola Popcorn: Full Of It

"Now Popping with Canola Oil. Low in Saturated Fats. No Cholesterol." The sign at the Multiplex cinema in Northern Virginia is pretty impressive.

Up to a quarter of all theaters use "healthier" canola oil. Canola may be lower in saturated fat, but we gagged when we saw how much cholesterol-raising trans fat it had. Why so much?

Because the multiplex banner is wrong. Theaters are popping in partially hydrogenated canola shortening, not canola oil. Oils have no trans. Shortenings -- even liquid ones -- are usually full of it.

When popcorn is popped in canola shortening, about 30 percent of its fat is cholesterol raising (sat fat plus trans). That’s not as good as canola oil’s seven percent, but it sure beats you-know-what.

Your Serve

Who eats so much popcorn? That’s what we’d like to know. The FDA says that the average serving of popcorn is three cups. Then how come even a kid-size order has almost twice that much? How much fat, saturated fat, etc., you get is a matter for you, your calculator ... and your conscience.

Popping Good

What to do?

Bring your own air-popped popcorn. Some theaters told as that they won’t make a fuss if you don’t show it to anybody.

Ask the manager to switch to air-popped popcorn. If the theater insists on using oil, ask that it be liquid corn oil. Unlike most other oils including canola, corn doesn’t have to be hydrogenated (so it contains no trans fat).

Ask for no salt. If they’ll do it, you’ll save from 207 mg (Cineplex Odeon kids) to 378 mg (AMC large bag) and maybe even avoid some artificial colorings.

How We Got Our Numbers

We collected popcorn samples in 12 theaters from six chains in San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. We combined them into three "composites" (coconut oil, coconut oil with topping, and canola shortening), and sent the composites to an independent laboratory to be analyzed for calories, sodium, etc. Then we measured how much popcorn we were served when we ordered each size at the three largest chains. Using the lab’s analyses of our composites, we calculated how much fat, etc., you’d get in each size of each theater’s popcorn.

Keep in mind that our numbers may not reflect precisely what you get on any given day at your local theater. First, there’s the imprecise human who fills your container sometimes below the brim, sometimes overflowing. Ditto for the topping. Some theater staff are more generous (thanks a lot!). And some chains, like AMC, use different sets of containers at different theaters. So the "large" listed here may not correspond to the "large" at your local AMC theater. The number of cups listed in our chart is especially imprecise. Why? We assumed that a cup of popcorn always holds the same number of kernels. In fact, it doesn’t. Sometimes the kernels are fluffy, so fewer fit into a cup. Other times when your portion comes from the bottom of the bin, for example, the kernels are packed more closely, and more fit into a cup.

So, our numbers aren’t perfect. But they’re the best around.

Notes: Analyses done at SGS Control Services, Inc. (Deer Park, Texas). The use of information from this article for commercial purposes is prohibited without written permission from CSPI.

The maximum amount (Daily Value) of total fat in a 2,000-calorie diet is 65 grams. The maximum amount of saturated fat is 20 grams. Theaters sell popcorn in multi-cup bags or buckets (a cup is a handful or two).

Juliann Goldman coordinated the food testing. Ingrid VanTuinen and interns Maxine Anderson, Anne Didato, and Michelle Werkstell helped compile the information for this article.

Nutrition Action Healthletter