Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why you should never eat movie theater popcorn

Have you ever noticed that eating too much movie theater popcorn can make you feel a little sick? That's because it probably is making you a little sick.

Popcorn may seem like the one snack available in a movie theater that's potentially healthy enough to make the Spartan Diet cut. After all, popcorn is just corn, a whole grain. If you ask for it without butter, it's healthy Spartan Diet-worthy, right?

Well, no. Not even close.

As you probably know, some theaters buy pre-popped popcorn, which is warmed up using lights in the theater. Pre-popped popcorn is typically cooked in unhealthy trans fat oils, and flavored and colored with artificial ingredients, often including MSG. And because this kind of popcorn is popped first, then stored for an unknown amount of time, it has preservatives added.

A bag of popcorn popped in the theater typically contains four individual concession stand supply products, including the popping corn, cooking oil, "butter" and seasoning salt. (Go here to see a nice collection of movie theater popcorn supply products.)

The corn itself is grown using insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fumigants and other chemicals used to "treat" the corn. Go here to see the complete list.

Most movie theater popcorn is cooked in an oil product that is mostly hydrogenated coconut oil, a highly toxic trans fat. (The National Academy of Sciences has stated publicly that there is no safe level of trans fat consumption, and that it should be totally eliminated from the human diet.) The oil used for popping theater popcorn also contains artificial butter flavoring. That's why when you ask for no butter, the popcorn still tastes like fake butter, and still has a weird yellow color.

Some theaters boast of popcorn cooked in canola oil, which is supposed to be a health benefit. In fact, they're popping the corn in partially hydrogenated canola shortening, which is also a trans fat.

So if you order movie theater popcorn with no butter and no salt, that's what you're getting: corn that has been compromised by insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fumigants and other chemicals, as well as trans fats, artificial flavors and probably preservatives as well.

But what if you do go for the butter and salt?

The artificial-butter-flavored topping is typically made mainly from hydrogenated soybean oil (another trans fat), artificial flavoring, beta carotene for color, and preservatives. Different theaters use different brands or supply sources, but this roster of toxic ingredients is typical.

One "flavoring agent" used in popcorn "butter" is called diacetyl, and it has been associated with lung disease among workers in the factories where it's made.

Popcorn supply companies don't have to disclose the use of diacetyl, or specific exactly what their flavoring agents are made of.

In addition, even the salt theaters use is something of a science project. The list of ingredients for one movie theater concession stand salt (which is typical), includes: "salt, artificial flavors, artificial sweetener (Acesulfame K), Yellow #5 Lake and Yellow #6 Lake." Some products also contain MSG.

Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest conducted a study on some nutritional aspects of movie theater popcorn, especially calories, fat and salt content, as well as other theater concession stand fare. Even by that shallow analysis, movie popcorn comes out as an assault on health. From the report: "A combo at [one theater chain] (medium popcorn plus medium soda) has 1,610 calories. That’s like eating six scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, four bacon strips, and four sausage links before the lights come up."

If you enjoy eating popcorn at the movies, why not pop and bring your own? Buy organic popping corn from the bin section of your grocery or health-food store. Pop it in an air popper, and add a little extra virgin olive oil and a little quality sea salt, then smuggle it into the theater.

The whole thing will cost less than one-tenth of what you'll pay at the megaplex. It will taste a whole lot better. And best of all, it will actually be very healthy, instead of a massive toxic hit to your body.