Popcorn packs a surprise! Reconsidering the health data about the movies' top snack


It never seems to be set in stone what is good for you and what isn’t. Eggs are the first thing that comes to mind: They have gone back and forth as good food/bad food so many times, it is hard to keep up. This seesaw view of many foods and beverages is becoming more important as the debate over obesity in the U.S. continues to heat up. The challenge is figuring out how to change the food industry, how to change people’s habits, how to change our healthcare industry—all simple things, right? Starting with the food industry, it is becoming clear that some foods are secret death traps while others are better than we once thought. As for habits, it is also becoming clear that we must change them.

The theatre business is right in the middle of this debate, whether you like it or not. We serve foods that are not fruit and vegetables. Yet, from a behavior standpoint, is it really the indulgence that gets you or is it the day-to-day activity? A combination of foods that you only “treat” yourself with is exactly what the theatre industry serves up, and in no bigger way than with its top favorite: popcorn.

Popcorn is one of those foods that walks the health tightrope. It is considered by many to be a lower-calorie snack at home; it has fewer calories and cholesterol than most chips. But at the theatre, where it is popped in hot oil, this advantage gets taken away. Add in some salt and butter topping and you just nose-dived into fat man’s land, right? Well, yes and no. There’s some new research out that is putting a new spin on popcorn, and even the oil it’s popped in. So hang on.

With the switch to canola oil and blend oils, the saturated fat content of popcorn dropped, and trans fats were lowered or eliminated. This trend has been in place for some time. Lately, however, even coconut oil, aka the Devil, is starting to get new press as potentially being good for you. The key reason is that virgin coconut oil exhibits some of the health benefits of other oils, such as immune boosting agents and inflammatory reduction. However, conventionally processed coconut oil is still considered very bad for you, and this is what has traditionally been used for popcorn. But with the blend oils that are being generated today, virgin coconut oil can be found.

In January, Shape magazine published an article in its “Eat Right News” on coconut oil, that lovely product that cooks popcorn perfectly in our theatre kettles. It’s a mainstream review of coconut oil, in which virgin coconut oil is shown to have some redeeming qualities. This is the part of the food discussion that is really changing; understanding the true biochemistry of edible products is helping to shape the debate on obesity, and foods in general. What may seem like a healthy product may not be, and what may seem unhealthy may surprise you.

This past March, Joe Vinson, a PhD specialist who focuses on health benefits of common foods, presented his findings on popcorn to the American Chemical Society. Bottom line: “Popcorn contains more of the healthful antioxidant substances called "polyphenols" than fruits and vegetables.” He found that the hulls of the popcorn are “nutritional nuggets” and that popcorn can be one of the healthiest foods you could possibly eat. The problem, of course, is how you prepare it. Pop it in conventionally processed coconut oil, lather it in butter topping and salt, and you quickly condemn the product to being very bad.
Vinson declared, “Popcorn may be the perfect snack food. It’s the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. All other grains are processed and diluted with other ingredients, and although cereals are called ‘whole grain,’ this simply means that over 51 percent of the weight of the product is whole grain. One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way.”

The new research is a fascinating addition to the discussion on popcorn, and taken into consideration with the choice of oil, could be fun to market in the movie theatre. The key to enjoying popcorn as a nutritional snack is to pick the best oil available for preparation and avoid the after-toppings that can be so bad. Ironically, add some dark chocolate as a topping, instead of butter, and now you really have an antioxidant party!

You may think that we don’t need to go this far, that the discussion on healthy choices may not reach so deeply into the theatre industry. But I think that obesity is going to be tackled in this country the way smoking was, and is. The more we can be prepared for it, the better. Popcorn is a great margin item for us, and being able to celebrate its healthy benefits can potentially be a great win-win scenario for us and our customers.

E-mail your comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.