Thumbs Down for Popcorn, Thumbs Up for Theater Trail Mix?

Movie popcorn is bad for you.

OK, you probably already knew that, but you may not have known all the disturbing, scientific details. (Read no further if you prefer blissful, buttery ignorance.)

A medium bucket o' heart-attack corn with soda at Regal (the nation's largest movie chain) is as good for your gut as a trio of Quarter Pounders topped with 12 pats of butter, says a study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit commissioned a lab review of the nutritional content of concessions at Regal, AMC, and Cinemark. Regal's medium popcorn had 1,610 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat -- all at a cost to the consumer of around $12 for raw ingredients for which Regal likely paid pennies.

"Regal and AMC are our nominees for Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic," said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley.

AMC's medium popcorn fared slightly better but only due do its smaller size: 590 calories, 33 grams saturated fat. Cinemark's heart-friendly canola oil slimmed its medium to 760 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat. Alas, with 1,500 milligrams of sodium, Cinemark's popcorn, says CSPI, "will be less likely to clog your arteries, but more likely to elevate your blood pressure." And don't even get them started on the candy! Scarfing an eight-ounce bag of Reese's Pieces "is like eating a 16-ounce T-bone steak and a buttered baked potato." (Thank goodness the CSPI explains everything in food terms we can all understand.) And this isn't the first time CSPI has given theater concessions a test. They ran the same routine 15 years ago, though not much has changed since then despite supposed industry attempts "to reformulate." Challenged Hurley, "sitting through a two-hour movie isn't exactly like climbing Mt. Everest. Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?"

Why indeed? Why haven't Regal and others stepped up? In an age where even fast-food franchises offer apple-dipper alternatives to fries, wherefore art thou, air-popped popcorn? Or ye high-fiber trail mix? Dry-roasted almonds anyone? Baby carrots (it's what a friend always stashes in her purse)? Sugar-free dark chocolate, at least, for the diabetics? Of course, it would still cost us -- probably about $7 for 12 raw peanuts or a handful of organic apple chips. Theater concessions are notorious for inflated prices and sadly, it seems the healthier the nosh, the higher the cost.

Unless snack-smuggling prevention measures escalate -- frisking moviegoers for grocery-store contraband -- those preferring trimmer treats can simply continue to sneak them in. Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just really excited to see Harry Potter? Then again, do theater patrons really want good-for-you nibbles? According to recent MPAA stats, the average American attends six movies a year. Said Regal, "Theater popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet." Added the National Assn. of Theater Owners, after a 1994 popcorn report, cinemas "offered their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn." Yet, "after very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard -- they wanted the traditional popcorn back."

Readers, what's your take on the movie-munchies debate? Do you crave healthier indulgences or are you satisfied with the sugar-coma-inducing status quo?

Do You Want Healthier Food Offerings at the Theater?(survey)