The twist in the plot? Both Regal and AMC -- the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 theater chains -- understate the calories in their popcorn servings by big amounts, according to laboratory analyses commissioned by the nonprofit.
Regal, for example, indicates its medium popcorn is 720 calories, while its large is 960 calories, the center says. But both medium and large sizes end up containing about 1,200 calories, the Washington, D.C., outfit says. And because the kernels are popped in coconut oil, they contain 60 grams of saturated fat -- three times the daily recommended allowance, the group adds. "You might think you're getting Bambi, but you're really getting Godzilla," says Jayne Hurley, the center's senior nutritionist.
Rival chain AMC states its large popcorn contains 660 calories, the center says. But according to its analysis, the tubs were loaded with 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. The center equates that to putting away a pound of baby-back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream -- except that the popcorn has an additional day's worth of saturated fat.
Enough Calories for "Climbing Mt. Everest"
No. 3 U.S. theater chain Cinemark's (CNK) large tub is slightly lower, at 910 calories. And because it uses heart-healthy canola oil instead of coconut oil, it reviews much better on the fat front, with only 4 grams of saturated fat. But the center isn't exactly giving it two thumbs up. The reason? It contains about twice as much sodium as the popcorn from the other chains.
"Sitting through a two-hour movie isn't exactly like climbing Mt. Everest," says Hurley. "Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?"
Requests for comment from all three chains on Saturday were not immediately returned.
News of the calorie count behind supersize popcorn comes at an interesting time. These cinemas aren't likely to face any regulatory backlash after having understated, as the center reports, the calorie and fat data. They're not required to publish this data at all.
In fact, no restaurant or food-service operation is required to publish nutritional data on its menus, websites or menu boards. There are exceptions. The data must be featured if the food is prepackaged or if the establishment is making health claims about its food ("low-fat," for instance).
But that all could change in the next few years. How? If health reform passes.
Chains in California Go on Diet
Deep in the House's health care reform bill, around page 1,528, is a requirement that restaurants prominently display nutrition information on the menu, along with a "succinct statement about suggested calorie intake." These facts would also need to be displayed on menu boards, alongside items on salad bars and on vending machines where individual items' nutrition facts were not available.
Several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mentioned it would move to require nutritional information on menus if its "ambitious program" encouraging restaurants to voluntarily release information "doesn't work, or if it has an adverse effect." What adverse effect concerned the FDA isn't known. Certainly, the program seems to have had the positive effect of reducing serving sizes at many large chains that went along with the program.
But requirements have been proven to be far more effective. In California, where the first phase of a labeling law very similar to the one in the House bill went into effect in July, many chains have already reformulated surprisingly fattening menu items.
As far as restaurateurs and other food-service businesses are concerned, the biggest complaint about the FDA's request that they voluntarily release nutrition information on their menus was the cost. The move would, restaurant lobbyists insisted, put many smaller businesses in dire financial straits.
None of them, however, mentioned the other problem: It might frighten customers enough for them to go home to eat, instead.
Menu labeling, and truthful disclosures, can only be good for the American consumer. Yes, it should be everyone's right to choose whether the government's nutritional recommendations are worth following. But it should also be a right to know whether you're even in the ballpark. If you believe the Center for Science in the Public Interest's numbers, that hasn't been the case at the big movie chains.