Megan Ogilvie
Health Reporter
Toronto Star

The Dish: January 28, 2011

  • DISH: Medium bag of popcorn with butter topping
  • RESTAURANT: Concessions at Cineplex Odeon Queensway Cinemas
  • LOCATION: 1025 The Queensway, Etobicoke
  • PRICE: $5.79 for the popcorn; $0.79 for the butter topping
  •  Serving size: 217 grams
  • Calories: 1,319
  • Fat: 97 grams
  • Sodium: 651 mg
  • Protein: 15 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 96 grams
  • 26 Weight Watchers PointsPlus!!
  • 10 PointsPlus for the Butter Topping!!

Let’s cut straight to the facts: A medium-sized bag of popcorn with butter could get you up to 97 grams of fat, depending on how liberally the topping is applied. That’s more than what most men should consume in a day, and is between 130 and 200 per cent of the average woman’s daily allotment.

Cineplex Odeon disputes the 97-gram tally. Nutrition sites estimate a medium bag of popcorn without butter rings in at 60 grams of fat. Adding butter (especially without tracking the amount) sends the snack into the stratosphere. For some people, 97 grams is almost two days worth of fat — in a snack.

“I almost fell off my chair,” says registered dietitian Shannon Crocker, who provided comparisons to underscore just how much fat movie goers could consume while munching handfuls of popcorn.

“That amount of fat is the same as what’s found in 12 hamburgers from McDonalds. Or in 10 slices of sausage mushroom melt pizza from Pizza Pizza. Or in five large hot fudge sundaes from Dairy Queen.”

Cineplex Entertainment, which runs the Queensway Cinemas from which we purchased this bag of popcorn, is the largest movie theatre chain in the country with 132 theatres and 1,366 screens that entertain more than 70 million people a year. In 2010, Cineplex sold 7 million pounds (kernel weight) of popcorn.

Cineplex should get some nutrition kudos for switching its popping oil from coconut oil, traditionally used by movie theatres to pop kernels, to a proprietary popping oil called Vegetol. The company says this blend, launched in 2007 and which includes canola oil and artificial butter flavour, is lower in calories, fat, saturated fat and trans fat than coconut oil. Instead of going to the movies and eating their fatty popcorn, think about renting a movie and popping your own popcorn. Here are some popcorn popper reviews. It’ll not only help reduce the amount of fat you consume but also save you money.

“Regardless,” says Crocker, “97 grams is still way too much fat even if it’s a heart-healthier kind.”

The 1,319 calories — half a day’s worth for most people — is doubly offensive since one cup of plain air-popped popcorn only contains about 33 calories. People who make air-popped popcorn at home would have to eat 40 cups to equal the 1,319 calories found in this blue paper bag.

“I recommend popcorn, just not movie popcorn,” says Crocker, adding air-popped popcorn is a good-for-you snack because it is a whole grain that provides a hit of fibre. The high calories are due to the popping oil and the butter topping (Cineplex offers Lactantia clarified butter and Becel popcorn topping; we chose the real butter to test).

At 651 mg, the sodium is the least worrisome of the big three nutrition numbers. Though at about half of what the body needs in a day, 651 mg is not completely innocuous.  According to Cineplex, movie goers can get nutrition information for concession foods by asking the Guests Services team.

Few things will make movie popcorn healthy. But Crocker says there are some ways to make it a better option: Choose the smallest size. Skip the buttery topping to save between 200 and 300 calories. Steer clear of the salt shakers to avoid added sodium. Split the small size with a friend. And order water, not pop.

“A medium-size soda at the movies can run about 300 calories. You don’t want to do any more damage.”

  • DISH: Nachos with cheese sauce
  • RESTAURANT: Concessions at Cineplex Odeon Queensway Cinemas
  • LOCATION: 1025 The Queensway, Etobicoke
  • PRICE: $5.99

Compared to the bag of popcorn, the tray of nachos with two dipping pots of cheese sauce is a calorie lightweight. But with 485 calories, 25 grams of fat and 715 mg of sodium, it’s still not a healthy choice.

“It’s just not as high in calories and fat as the popcorn,” Crocker says.

The 500 calories is more than double what the average person should aim for in a snack. The 25 grams of fat is between one third and one half of what a woman should consume in a day. And the 715 mg of sodium is about half of the recommended daily allotment.

If you are a nacho lover, it’s probably best to split this tray, says Crocker. There’s not a lot of nutrition here, mostly just empty calories with fat and salt.

“It’s not the same as sprinkling cheddar cheese and chopped veggies on your nachos at home.”