In May 1994, the owners of your local multiplex were smoothing out the wrinkles on posters for Maverick, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Little Buddha (starring the eternally godlike Keanu Reeves). But when your mom and her friends bought tickets to stage-whisper to each other throughout a screening of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, there’s a good chance that they skipped the popcorn—not because it was too expensive, but because it had just been characterized as instant heart disease in a striped, butter-scented box.
Today is National Popcorn Day, so we’re going to throw back to that time almost 24 years ago when movie popcorn was flat-out demonized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which presented its findings in a Congressional Hearing and then published them in its own Nutrition Action Healthletter.
To test the nutritional value of popcorn, CSPI bought popcorn in three US cities from 12 theaters that were part of six different chains. They sent the samples to a lab for testing and then compared the fat content in the corn popped in canola shortening and in coconut oil, as well as added up all of the fat in butter-topped, coconut-oil-popped corn. The problem, the CSPI said, was the coconut oil, which (despite being lauded as a “superfood” in recent times) was ridiculously high in saturated fat. Just days after the hearing, CSPI nutritionist Jayne Hurley breathlessly warned professional moviegoer Roger Ebert that a large popcorn had the same amount of fat as “six Big Macs”—more saturated fat than a human is supposed to consume over the course of three days.
The CSPI’s findings were met with fear and revulsion, which is presumably what it hoped for. The New York Times freaked out and published a piece that began with this gloriously dated lede: “The scariest thing at the movies isn't Jason or Freddy Krueger. It isn't even Mickey Rourke in a dramatic role. It's popcorn.” The Los Angeles Times wrote of the “Nightmare at the Multiplex,” a 555-word condemnation of both coconut oil and Elle MacPherson’s acting abilities. (Ask your dad who she was).
The Popcorn Institute, a trade organization for the popcorn supply industry, responded to the CSPI’s report with a cautiously optimistic shrug. “We don't think people are going to run screaming from the building because popcorn is sold," Popcorn Institute spokesperson Deirdre T. Flynn told the Times. "If you eat it as a little indulgence now and then, it's not going to kill you."
But moviegoers were worried enough to pass on the popcorn, at least while they watched Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction later that year. Movie popcorn sales fell 50 percent over the next 12 months before eventually returning to their pre-CSPI sales levels once everyone forgot about that whole six-Big-Macs thing.
“The shock-value of CSPI’s efforts are short-lived. Movie theater popcorn sales rebounded after a year,” Tulsa World wrote in 2001, on CSPI’s 30th anniversary. “Recently, one major theater chain abandoned its low-cholesterol safflower-oil alternative and returned to using coconut oil to pop its corn. Why? Same reason Mexican restaurants still use pork fat in tamales. [It] tastes better.”
The CSPI’s win over the AMC concessions area was short-lived, and some analysts blame the CSPI itself for that. Just before it started screaming about popcorn, it was trying to steer health-conscious Americans away from Italian and Mexican restaurants; Roger Ebert noted that the group referred to fettuccine Alfredo as a “heart attack on a plate.” The always-outraged CSPI has since launched attacks on everything from food dyes to sugar to… popcorn again. (And for what its worth, its YouTube video “Barbie Supports Menu Labeling” is really something).
In 2009, the CSPI dusted off one of its greatest hits and again tried to demonize movie theater popcorn for its fat content, but its findings seem to have gone mostly ignored.
“The healthiest snack to buy at the movies is no snack at all,” Jane Hurley said at the time, proving that she was still the same carefree ball of fun as she’d been 15 years earlier.
The Center for Consumer Freedom notes that, in the two decades since CSPI first launched its popcorn attack, nutritionists’ attitudes toward saturated fats have changed. Trans fats and partial hydrogenation are the real villain now, and as anyone who’s read a single health blog or dated a Crossfitter knows, coconut oil is everyone’s darling.
“Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data,” Dr. Thomas Brenna told the New York Times. “Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.”
And on this day, this National Popcorn Day, remember that popcorn is killer—in that it’s pretty damn delicious.