Movie popcorn, calories, and menu-labeling laws: Why should theaters be exempt?

Science, technology, and life.
April 5 2011 7:50 AM

Don't Touch Anything But My Junk

If movie theaters can make you eat their junk food, shouldn't they tell you what's in it?

Movie popcorn. Click image to expand.
Movie popcorn is one of the worst things you can eat, healthwise

On April Fools' Day, pursuant to the new health care law, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft rule on menu labeling. The rule requires chain restaurants and retail food sellers to tell customers how many calories are in each menu item. "Giving consumers clear nutritional information makes it easier for them to choose healthier options," said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. But apparently that logic doesn't apply to movie theaters that restrict patrons to the worst food imaginable. Under the proposed rule, theaters are exempt.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The FDA's official rationale for this exemption is that a theater's "primary purpose is not to sell food." But the original version of the rule, drafted last year, had no such exemption. An FDA deputy commissioner tells the New York Times that the agency's "thinking has absolutely evolved based on comments we've gotten from a number of quarters." According to the Los Angeles Times, the National Assocation of Theatre Owners—that's right, NATO—has been "lobbying the FDA and congressional staff members in recent weeks to exempt theaters."

NATO boasts of having "successfully lobbied to get movie theaters exempted from menu labeling ordinances" around the country. It says theaters should be spared the "costly obligations associated with updating menu boards and menus" because "our patrons do not go to movies intending to consume 'meals' or otherwise satisfy nutritional requirements. It is escapist entertainment."

That's a funny way to put it, because the one thing you can't escape at a movie theater is execrable food. Look what the nation's top three movie chains are selling. AMC Theaters and the Regal Entertainment Group advertise free refills with every large popcorn and soda. Cinemark peddles nachos, hot dogs, candy, Gummies, and Coke.

What exactly is in these products? Good luck figuring that out. "Can I get nutritional information on your concessions?" asks a question on AMC's Web site. The company's answer: "Sorry, but there is no nutritional information available at this time." AMC also invites you to pump extra buttery topping onto your popcorn, neglecting to mention that every tablespoon adds 120 calories. At many Cinemark theaters, each tablespoon of topping adds 9 grams of saturated fat, half the recommended daily limit.

Two years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sent popcorn samples from all three chains to an independent lab.  Cinemark's large popcorn had 910 calories and 1,500 milligrams of sodium. AMC's had 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. Regal's medium popcorn had 1,200 calories, 980 milligrams of sodium, and 60 grams of saturated fat. And that's not counting the buttery topping. Throw in a large soda to quench your popcorn-generated thirst, and you'll get another 400 to 500 calories.

These numbers aren't just astronomically bad. They're bigger than what the chains reported to CSPI. AMC's large popcorn had 50 percent more calories and 75 percent more saturated fat than the company asserted. Regal's popcorn also scored worse in the lab test than advertised.

To improve their image and avoid regulation, some theaters now purport to offer healthy options. Last fall, Regal announced a new item for "health-conscious patrons" in two states: a "portion-controlled serving of popcorn with only 100 calories and your choice of either Coke Zero(R) or Sprite Zero(R)." Same garbage, lower dose. Regal also unveiled a "Fruit, Nut & Snack Pack" consisting of salted almonds, pretzels, and raisins. Yesterday, AMC announced a similar package featuring "popped corn chips," "fruit chips," and "chocolate chip trail mix," again without fat or calorie information. Another major chain, Cineplex Entertainment, touts a variety of "concession and restaurant offerings" from "Pizza Hut Express, Tim Hortons, Burger King, Pizza Pizza, New York Fries, KFC Express, Yogen Fruz and more!"

If you don't like these options and you try to bring in something healthier, you'll have to toss it. AMC, like other chains, has a "no outside food and drink policy." Cinemark includes the same clause in its contract for visiting school groups: "No outside food or beverage of any kind will be permitted in the theatre." These policies don't exempt outside food that can be eaten neatly. Nor do they keep theaters clean, as anyone who has walked out of a movie with sticky shoes can attest. They aren't about sanitation or decorum, much less health. They're about making money  by monopolizing your food options for two to three hours. You can eat the theater's overpriced, thirst-inducing crap, or you can starve.

Well, it's a free country, and nobody has to go to a movie. But the same is true of fast-food restaurants. The question raised by the FDA rule is why Regal, Cinemark, or AMC should be exempt from the menu-labeling rules we apply to McDonald's. The exemption seems particularly unjust when theater chains serve nothing but junk food, withhold nutritional information, misrepresent their calorie and fat content, and forbid customers from eating anything healthier. The fact that they're in the movie business rather than the food business makes their eat-our-junk-food-or-nothing policies more outrageous, not less.

There's a simple and quite modest way to fix the FDA rule: Any chain establishment that prohibits outside food should forfeit its exemption from menu labeling. You can tell us how many calories are in your popcorn, or you can let us bring something better to eat. But you can't have it both ways.

(My recommended reading: Bloomberg reports that theater chains "generate as much as one- third of their annual revenue from concessions." Sarah Gilbert at Wallet Pop notes that according to Regal's CEO, "a $6 bucket of popcorn costs the chain 15 or 20 cents." Mike Bracken at Moviefone asks, "Does anyone think a large tub of popcorn and a gallon of soda is actually good for them?")

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