The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Ä Looking for a good scare at the movies? Take a closer peek at the popcorn. Film buffs' favorite snack is a high-fat horror story, a consumer group warned Monday.

The problem is not popcorn itself, which can be a healthy treat, but the fatty coconut oil that 70 percent of theaters pop their corn in, said the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group.

Saturated fat in coconut oilturns popcorn from "the snow White of snack foods ... into Godzilla," said Michael Jacobson, president of CSPI.

Theater owners argue that most people go to the movies only five or six times a year, so where's the harm? "It's one of life's little pleasures," said William Kartozian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The consumer group believes moviegoers should know what they are noshing.

A typical small bag of theater popcorn, for example, contains almost an entire day's recommended allowance of saturated fat, the kind that causes heart disease, the center said.

And that's without the butter-flavored topping.

A medium-sized bucket with "butter" has 56 grams of saturated fat and "trans" fat, both blamed for clogging arteries, the group says.

That's more artery-clogging fat than you get from a whole day of eating high-fat foods: a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and large order of fries, and a steak dinner with sour cream, combined.

"As far as fat and heart disease are concerned, movie-theater popcorn is certainly one of the worst foods you can buy," Jacobson told a news conference.

Theaters could eliminate most of the saturated fat by switching to air-popped popcorn, he said. Or they could reduce the fat significantly by popping with corn oil.

So why do theaters use coconut oil? Some say it improves popcorn's taste and creates the aroma that wafts through movie-house lobbies.

"Most people ask us why they can't get their home popcorn to taste as good as theater popcorn. The answer is the coconut oil," said Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing for Cineplex Odeon. The Toronto-based chain has 235 U.S. theaters.

Although hefty containers of popcorn and soft drinks are the main attraction at theater concession stands, Lichtman said most people share the largest sizes with a friend.

"It's not a heath issue," he said. "It's a small indulgence."

Some theaters have already taken note of moviegoers' interest in healthy eating, however, advertising "healthier" popcorn made with canola oil.

Jacobson said that does reduce saturated fat, although the ads are misleading. Most of those theaters actually use canola shortening, not oil, he said, and the shortening is high in "trans" fat, a substance also linked to heart disease.

He urged moviegoers to sneak in their own popcorn from home. Microwave popcorn is not as healthy as air-popped popcorn, Jacobson said, but either is better than theater popcorn.

The center used an independet labratory to analyse popcorn samples from 12 theaters in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., representing six theater chains. The samples were mixed together by type, so the results vary slightly from the popcorn served at any one theater.

One surprising finding: Compared to popcorn, candy is dandy. the very worst candy bar that is offered at the concession stand," said Jayne Hurley, who wrote the center's report.

That doesn't mean candy is good for you. In addition to sugar, some theater-sized chocolate bars have almost a full day's worth of saturated fat. Read Next Article