Most people consider popcorn a healthy snack. It's a whole grain and compared with deep-fried potato chips, it's low in fat and calories.
Not so at the movie theatre. Order a large popcorn unbuttered and you'll consume the calorie and fat equivalent of two McDonald's Big Macs. Not to mention almost a day's worth of sodium. Wash down that popcorn with a large 44-ounce (1.3-litre) regular soft drink and you'll come close to hitting your daily calorie target.
That's what our laboratory analysis told us. On average, a large plain popcorn has 1,100 calories, 60 grams of fat and 1,235 milligrams of sodium.
Who knew that popcorn – sans butter – could set you back so many calories and so much fat (a day's worth for women)? Or that a large popcorn with buttery topping has, on average, 1,261 calories, 79 grams of fat and 1,300 milligrams of sodium?
How could you know? Movie theatres don't post nutrition information on their menu boards or websites.
If you were aware of these numbers, would you rethink your movie theatre snack? Based on our findings, we think so.
To see how many calories and how much fat and sodium movie theatre popcorn serves up, The Globe and Mail and CTV News commissioned an independent lab to analyze samples of large popcorn – with and without topping – from Cineplex Odeon, Empire Theatres and AMC Theatres.
Based on serving sizes stated by each chain, it was a simple task to calculate nutrition numbers for small and medium (regular) sizes.
For me, the biggest surprise was how much oil so-called "plain" popcorn is soaked in. Even a small (about 11 cups) has six to eight teaspoons worth of oil, depending on the chain.
It didn't come as a shock that movie theatre popcorn was so high in sodium. Salt is added at the beginning of the popping process. When you order 22 cups of popcorn (roughly how much is in a large bag), you're bound to get plenty of sodium.
I asked each company to provide nutrition facts for their popcorn if they had it. Turns out popcorn sold at Cineplex Odeon and Empire Theatres has more calories, fat and sodium than the company states. (AMC, a U.S.- based company, did not return my calls.)
Cineplex Odeon says its large popcorn, no topping, has 850 calories, 40 grams of fat and 399 milligrams of sodium – a difference of 291 calories, 27 grams of fat and 729 milligrams of sodium (half a day's worth).
Empire Theatres says its large popcorn, no topping, has 637 calories (actual 1,116), 28.5 grams of fat (actual 51) and 1,297 milligrams of sodium (actual 1,695).
Why such discrepancy? For one, actual serving sizes were larger than each company stated. Each company also cited human error – inconsistent methods used to prepare the product.
Things could improve. Later this year, Cineplex Odeon expects to launch a new popping salt that's 50-per-cent reduced in sodium.
And recently Empire Theatres has invested heavily in the development of its "popcorn program" to deliver a consistent product at all theatres.
Movie theatre popcorn will never be a health food. But our findings don't mean you should trade in your popcorn for an oversized bag of candy. (After all, who needs the 15 teaspoons of sugar in a 120-gram serving of M&M's? )
A bag of movie theatre popcorn isn't going to wreck your diet, provided it's a once-in-a-while splurge (and a splurge it is).
If you're a regular moviegoer who loves popcorn, order the small size or kid's size if available. And forgo the buttery topping. That "plain" popcorn already comes with plenty of fat.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.