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There's a lot of variation in the calorie and saturated fat content of movie theatre popcorn. ((Larry Crowe/Associated Press))

Eating a large bag of popcorn at some Canadian movie theatres is like eating almost a quarter kilogram of potato chips, a paper suggests.

The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest commissioned laboratory analyses of movie theatre popcorn from the top three chains in Canada and the U.S. for the December issue of its Nutrition Action Newsletter.

"You can get one kind of popcorn with three grams of saturated fat and roughly the same size at another theatre with 38 grams of saturated fat. That's just a phenomenal difference," said Bill Jeffery of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in Ottawa. "These are things that you can't tell by tasting."

At Cineplex Entertainment — the largest chain in Canada with 1,328 screens — popcorn is now popped in non-hydrogenated canola oil, second best after air popped at home.

But the popcorn purchased by CSPI researchers weighed more than the company claims. After adjusting the serving size, a small popcorn with no topping had 480 calories.

A large untopped popcorn has 1,120 calories — half a day's worth for most people, as well as 530 milligrams of sodium.

Health Canada recommends that adults consume less than 20 grams of saturated fat, and about 1,500 mg of sodium in an entire day based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Patrons who opt for five pumps of Becel topping on a large, 20 cup portion at Cineplex add 270 calories and four grams of saturated fat. They get 320 calories and 22 grams of saturated fat with five squirts of Lactantia butter topping.

At Empire, Canada's second-largest chain with 377 screens, popcorn is also made in non-hydrogenated canola oil. A small, untopped popcorn contains 360 calories, equivalent to 60 grams of potato chips.

Even a small popcorn at Empire includes 740 milligrams of sodium — half a day's worth, the Centre said. A large carries 1,480 milligrams, without adding a seasoning packet.

Nutrition labels

At AMC Theatres, which has 184 screens in Canada, the corn snack is popped in coconut oil containing 90 per cent saturated fat. The AMC popcorn bought for the article also consistently weighed more than the company said.

A small popcorn, about six cups worth, with no topping, included 13 grams of saturated fat compared with 38 grams in a large portion containing 16 cups.

Movie theatres also offer pop to wash down the snacks. A small ranged from two cups at Cineplex to 2.5 cups at AMC. Assuming a quarter of the cup is filled with ice, the drink includes 150 to 200 calories' worth of sugar, unless the drink is water or diet pop.

The report also looked at the calories, sugar and saturated fat content of candy sold at theatres. The nutrition information printed on the package are typically for a 40- to 50-gram serving, while the theatres tend to sell candy in 100- to 200-gram sizes.

For seven years, theatres and restaurants have been exempt from rules requiring nutrition facts tables on prepackaged foods, Jeffries said.

In April, legislators in Ontario made the first moves toward a bill requiring large-chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards, as governments in California and New York City have already mandated.

Applying such labels at restaurants and movie theatres in Canada "would give people pause," Jeffery said, noting there's a public health argument towards putting warnings on foods with really high saturated fat or sodium contents, given the artery-clogging potential.

But it's not clear if consumers would opt for low-calorie popcorn.

After the U.S. Center's first report on popcorn in 1994, many cinema operators responded by offering patrons choices such as air-popped popcorn, the National Association of Theatre Owners, which includes Canadian theatres, said in a statement.

"After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard," the association, which includes Canadian members, said in a statement in response to the CSPI report.

"They wanted the traditional popcorn back."

The movie theatre industry will continue to respond to customers' preferences, the group said.