For fans of movie-theater popcorn -- "the Godzilla of snack foods," according to a report released earlier this week -- there may be a kernel of hope. At least in Baltimore.
Here, theater-goers have a good chance of sitting down with a tub of corn popped in vegetable oil, which in health terms, is better for you than that popped with the saturated-fat coconut oil cited in a study released Monday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The watchdog group reports that a 16-cup serving of unbuttered, coconut-oil-popped corn has 901 calories and 43 grams of cholesterol. Add butter and the cholesterol total goes to 56 grams.
The villain is the coconut oil, a tropical oil that is mostly saturated fat. Consumption of saturated fat can lead to elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood, which in turn can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
Locally, a growing number of movie theaters are using more heart-healthy vegetable oils -- such as canola oil, olive oil and corn oil -- to pop their corn.
"We pop our popcorn in 100 percent canola oil -- have since 1989," says Tom Kiefaber, owner of Baltimore's Senator Theatre. People don't miss the coconut oil, he says, adding that he's routinely approached by people praising the Senator's popcorn as the best in town.
"I would like to see the entire industry switch over to canola-oil popping," Mr. Kiefaber says. The West Coast trend is now picking up in the East, he says. Larger theater chains may be more reluctant to change over, he says, because canola oil can cost more. "If you have thousands of screens, it makes a difference."
One company that does have more than a thousand screens -- 1,269, including some in Baltimore -- says it has been using canola oil for almost four years. "We switched in June of 1990," says Joanne Parker, director of corporate relations for GC Companies, parent of General Cinema's parent company. "It was just in response to trends in low-fat diets. We started experimenting with alternatives, looking for a lower saturated-fat content."
Since the switch, she says, "We haven't noticed any fall-off in sales. We sold 3.5 million pounds of popcorn last year."
At United Artists -- with more than two dozen of its 2,230 screens in Baltimore -- "We've used canola oil, we've used corn oil in tests," says Bill Quigley, vice president of marketing. "But coconut oil tastes best and smells best. Our customers tell us they like it."
About 98 percent of UA's theaters use coconut oil, Mr. Quigley says, but, "it's a small indulgence. . . . Have you ever eaten one of those huge tubs of popcorn all by yourself?"
Popcorn at the Charles is popped in vegetable oil, says George Udel, who handles public relations for the art theater. When it reopened recently under new management, "we advertised that we were going to have healthy, nonsaturated oil on our popcorn," Mr. Udel says.
When the corn popper arrived with a 25-pound tub of solid coconut oil, there was a scramble to find corn oil to replace it.
Of the vegetable oil, he says, "We try to use it minimally." But he also notes that theaters have to respond to customer demand. "When people come here, they want popcorn and they want it with butter."
"We do have theaters that use coconut oil," says Mark Pascucci, vice president of advertising and publicity for New York-based Loew's Theaters, which has dozens of screens in the Baltimore area.
It's the oil that produces the characteristic popcorn-y smell that pervades theaters, Mr. Pascucci says. But he questions whether anyone gets a big enough dose of popcorn to cause a health problem.
So does Sherri Sobol, a registered dietitian who is a spokesman for the Maryland Dietetic Association.
"I don't think it's very alarming," she says. "If someone goes to the theater and eats popcorn every day, it might be a problem, but if you just go every so often . . . As dietitians, we're saying, everything in moderation." Occasional popcorn use is not likely to hasten otherwise healthy people into the grave. "How many times do you get to the movies?" she asks.
It's too early to tell whether the Center for Science's report is having any impact on popcorn consumption at the nation's theaters, says Bill Kartozian, president of the National Theater Owners Association, a Los Angeles-based trade group. "My feeling is, when this has had time to settle down, whatever the customer says they want, that's what we'll give them. We're a customer-driven industry."
If there's a demand for more healthful popcorn, theaters will respond; if people demand "old-fashioned," coconut-oil popped corn, theaters will respond to that. "Ultimately the public's going to tell us," he says. "People are going to vote with their pocketbooks."