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Home » GFF (Gluten-free friendly), Healthy supermarket picks

Sneaking popcorn into the movies

Submitted by on January 9, 2009 – 8:49 am3 Comments
© Wolfgang Amri |

© Wolfgang Amri |

When I first met my husband, he told me that one of his top 5 favorite smells was movie popcorn. We went to the movies a fair amount during our courtship, and each time we polished off a large sized bucket. As I started becoming more involved in the nutrition field, it became clear that these almost-weekly binges on corn-studded coconut oil and artificial butter flavoring were not particularly consistent with my goals of fitting into a wedding dress one day and maintaining functional arteries.

(Just how bad is movie popcorn? Well, there’s a lot of conflicting information floating around on the internet, so I called the Food & Beverage department of AMC Theaters, which owns the local movie theater near our house. They informed me that a large-sized bag of their popcorn (136 oz), which is still popped in coconut oil (~85% saturated fat), contained 664 calories; 31g of fat, of which 27g was saturated. If you split this bag among 2 people, that’s about a full day’s worth of saturated fat for a woman on a 1,500 calorie/day diet. This, of course, assumes that this nutritional information is accurate, which may not be a safe assumption. The Center for Science in the Public Interest–a non-profit organization that advocates for food safety, public health and truth in food labeling– conducted an independent analysis of actual bags of movie popcorn from 12 different chains and found that the average large sized movie popcorn in actuality had closer to 80g of fat, 50g of them saturated. Yowza.)

But movie popcorn was his favorite scent, for crying out loud! How could we just give it up? Clearly, I would have to appeal to our collective stinginess to achieve this task.

Remember when the movies were considered a cheap date? Well, after you’ve dropped $20 just walking into the theatre, it seems almost criminal to be charged another $15 for popcorn and a drink. So we started smuggling in our own popcorn under the self-delusion that we were doing it to be smart consumers… to avoid being suckered by the “man” who was selling us 5-cent popcorn for $10 and laughing all the way to the bank. But as we became more practiced, my husband perfected his technique to the point where we actually started to prefer the taste of our own popcorn concoctions to the movie theatre version.

OK. I’ll admit that the best way to do this would be to pop your own popcorn straight from the kernel in a hot air popper or on the stove top. Its the cheapest and it’s the least processed way to eat popcorn, which is a whole grain, by the way, and quite a good source of fiber (a hair over 1g of fiber per 1 cup popped; for reference, the average bag of microwave popcorn contains 10-12.5 cups popped.)

But I will also confess that although this is the ideal method, I still haven’t made the switch from microwave popcorn. Is that terrible? I’ll grant that this may not entirely consistent with my goal of eating minimally-processed foods whenever feasible, although as you’ll see below, there are a few brands that make totally natural microwave popcorn products–with no chemical preservatives or artificial flavors. I’m comfortable with this compromise for the time being, or until someone in my family buys me a hot air popper for my birthday.

So the challenge for us lazy popcorn makers is to start off with a microwave popcorn that has minimal fat, no artificial preservatives, and no nasty artificial butter flavors (especially diacetyl–which is the chemical responsible for “popcorn lung” among those who chronically inhale their microwave popcorn steam.) Since we spray our own olive oil onto the popcorn after its popped to help with seasoning adhesion, we want to use products that contain minimal fat so we don’t double up on it. Personally, I prefer salted versions so as not to have to deal with salting it myself…pre-salted salt tends to stick better than the salt I add post-pop.

Some of the most reasonable microwave popcorn choices I’ve come across in the supermarket include Jolly Time’s American’s Best (devouring the whole bag popped is still a very reasonable splurge: 245 calories and 5-6 grams of fat–with probably around 1g-1.5g of it saturated); Bearitos Organic No Oil Added Lightly Salted (a whole bag has 220 calories and 3 grams of fat–none of it saturated– and a respectable 8% of the daily value for sodium. Note a bag makes 2.5 cups less popped corn than the Jolly Time); and Newman’s Own Organics makes no-butter-no-salt version of their Pop’s Corn. You’ll need to salt this last one on your own if its going to stack up to the movie version as far as taste goes. Since they’re organic, the Bearitos and the Newman’s Own Organics have the added benefit of using non-GMO corn in addition to being grown without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The Jolly Time product claims to use corn grown without any pesticides.

If these aren’t available in your area, the next best widely-available choices are Orville Redenbacher’s Natural Simply Salted 50% Less Fat or the regular Natural Simply Salted. In a pinch, Orville Redenbacher’s Smart Pop! 94% Fat Free Butter popcorn is still a relatively good choice–especially compared to movie popcorn– but I’d prefer to avoid the artificial flavor and preservatives they use.

OK. So now that we’ve addressed the question of our popcorn choice, time for seasoning.

We pop up 3 bags of microwave popcorn for a batch designed to feed 2-3 people well past the previews and into the first half of the movie. Tools you’ll need include a Misto Olive Oil Sprayer (the kind you fill up and pump) and a large paper grocery bag (for the spraying/seasoning/shaking/ smuggling action). Empty all popcorn bags into the paper grocery bag and spray several pumps of olive oil to cover the popcorn. Close bag and shake vigorously. Repeat this 2-3 times until you’re confident that enough kernels have been exposed to the oil so that your seasonings will adhere.

Variation 1: Sprinkle generous amounts of oregano and some garlic powder in the bag. Close it and shake it vigorously. Taste. Continue to season until it’s perfected. My husband also likes to add additional salt & pepper; I’d go easy on the salt if you’re using a fully pre-salted version, but you can decide that for yourself.

Variation 2: Substitute dried rosemary leaves for the oregano. Or use in addition to the oregano.

Variation 3: My sister-in-law, who is a vegetarian, taught me to add Nutritional Yeast to my popcorn, and I’ve been hooked ever since. If you can get past the name (why on earth does it have to be so descriptive?) and try it, you’ll find that it looks and tastes a lot like grated parmesean cheese. And who doesn’t love cheese popcorn? The brand I currently use contains yeast flakes grown on molasses, which contributes to its impressive nutrient profile. According to the label, 3 rounded tablespoons (that’s actually a lot; I think 1-2 is plenty, depending how much popcorn you’re seasoning with it) contains only 80 calories, 1g of fat, 9 huge grams of protein…and well-over a full day’s supply of the most B vitamins: Thiamin (820%); Riboflavin (720%); Niacin (370%); Vitamin B6 (560%); Folic Acid (310%); and Vitamin B12 (150%). These specific values will vary depending on the brand you buy, but you get the picture. Nutritional yeast is totally natural, and also gluten-free and vegan; this last point is especially important, since B12 is very difficult to get in a diet that is free of any animal products. If you like it on your popcorn, you can also try adding it to soups to jack up their nutritional value naturally.

There was only one popcorn experiment we tried that failed miserably. We added a bit of cayenne pepper to our blend to give the popcorn a little kick. We wound up sneezing throughout the entire movie.

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  • Soyoung says:

    What about packaged popcorn, like Smartfood?

  • Tamara says:

    Well, like with anything, it depends how much of it you eat.

    If you buy and eat a whole supermarket ‘regular’ sized (9.5oz) bag of Smartfood, which is easy to do while mindlessly snacking during a movie, you’ll have about 9 cups of popcorn. (That’s actually less popcorn by volume than a single microwave popcorn bag, which is 10-12 cups.) That whole bag contains 800 calories and 55g of fat, 10g of which is saturated. So from a calorie and total fat perspective, it’s actually up there with the large-sized AMC movie popcorn, except that they use much healthier vegetable oils, so the amount of unhealthy saturated fats is way lower. This bag also contains about half of your recommended sodium limit for the day (1,250mg). If you love Smartfood and buy a single-serve bag (only 0.5 oz… just over 1 cup), it’s a much ‘smarter’ 100 calories. If that will be enough to satisfy you, go for it.

    I guess the question really is: how much popcorn do you like to have at the movies? If you really like to munch constantly to the point where you want to eat several cups, I think doctoring up your own microwave popcorn is the healthiest way to go. If you really just love movie popcorn and want to eat it, then focus on portion control by buying a kid’s size or small size. If you love Smartfood, either buy 1-2 snack sized bags…or do yourself a favor and share that big bag with at least 2-3 other people!

    This actually reminds me of some terrific research out of Cornell University in 2005 that showed how having a large portion of food–popcorn, to be specific–influenced the quantity that subjects ate. The craziest thing was that the experiment used STALE popcorn, and showed that subjects given a large size bag of stale popcorn still ate almost 34% more than subjects given a medium sized bag of stale popcorn. (The effect was even greater when subjects were given fresh popcorn: they ate 45% more from the large container than the medium one!) So the key takeaway here is the more you have available, the more you’ll eat. It’s hard to self-regulate to a healthy intake if you have a large portion in front of you.

    Does this help…?

    Source: Wansink, Brian and Junyong Kim (2005), “Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste, “ Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37:5 (Sept-Oct), 242-5.

  • Lindsay says:

    I use my stove top Whirley Pop popper, dump the popcorn into my biggest mixing bowl, spray with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, then shake on nutritional yeast and toss. A great recipe from an old friend. It is delicious and has protein, fiber and B12! (Husband also asks for this now…men and their popcorn).