Don't Eat Movie Theater Popcorn Until You Read This

There are many reasons to get excited about going to the movies. There's the feature presentation, of course. Then there are the previews, which some people look forward to just as much (if not more) than the movie itself. Many moviegoers look forward to the dark seclusion — the brief respite from work and responsibility and socializing — that sitting through a movie provides.

But let's be real. One of the major draws of going to the movies is getting something you just can't get anywhere else: movie theater popcorn. Sure, you can pop a bag in your microwave at home. They even have bags billed "movie theater butter." It's not the same, though, and any movie theater aficionado will tell you so. There's something inherently different about a big ol' tub of movie theater popcorn, especially when coated in a few pumps of liquid gold (aka hot melted butter).

Before your next movie theater popcorn experience, you should probably be aware of a few facts and hacks. Admittedly, some might make you look slightly askew at your beloved concession stand treat. On the other hand, some of this intel will undoubtedly help you have an even better movie theater popcorn experience. So, what are you waiting for? Let's get poppin'. 

Nutrition labels are... fluid

If you're looking for the healthiest snack at the concession stand, movie theater popcorn may not be for you. Per AMC's nutrition label, plain popcorn in a refillable tub contains a whopping 1090 calories, 440 of which come from fat (of which there are 49 grams). Sodium? Off-the-charts at 2650 milligrams. And here's the real kicker — even movie theater nutrition labels aren't necessarily an accurate indicator of just how bad for you movie theater popcorn really is

Scroll down to the bottom of the nutrition guide, and you'll find a disclaimer of sorts. "The nutritional information seen here was prepared by MenuTrinfo, LLC and is based on standard serving sizes and product formulations prepared with approved ingredients. The nutritional data presented are based on representative values from the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and information from product manufacturers. Variation may occur due to the handcrafted nature of our menu items or due to seasonal influences and/or sources of supply of our ingredients," the caveat reads. 

In other words, what you see is not what you get. There's really no way to tell how much salt, butter, and oil individual theaters (or even individual concession stand employees) use when they serve you a bucket of crunchy, buttery, delicious kernels. In a study done by The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group found that, in many cases, movie theaters low-ball the actual calorie counts. 

The butter isn't really butter

Before we reveal this next bit of information, take a moment to appreciate the naïveté of your youth. You know, the days before the push to make nutrition information more transparent, when your biggest health concern was whether drinking Pepsi after eating Pop Rocks would make your stomach explode.

Feeling sufficiently warm and fuzzy? Then perhaps you're ready to face the truth — the butter on your movie theater popcorn isn't butter at all. Per writer Stacey Ballis for My Recipes, a one-two punch of artificial flavoring gives movie theater popcorn the illusion of being super buttery.

According to Ballis, who learned to make movie theater popcorn in college, Flavacol and Butter Flavored Topping are the two main ingredients lending popcorn that special movie theater je ne sais quoi. The first seems to be confirmed on the vendor website Popcorn Supply Company, which describes Flavacol as "the world's most popular seasoning salt" and goes on to explain, "This 'secret ingredient' adds buttery flavor & bright yellow color for real theater style popcorn." 

The liquid "butter" you so love to pump all over your bucket of popcorn "has no butter in it," insists Ballis. What it does have is "partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a.k.a. trans fats), beta carotene (a coloring, makes carrots orange), tertiary Butylhydroquinone or TBHQ (synthetic preservative that keeps the color and texture from changing as the product sits), polydimethylsiloxane (silicone based chemical that prevents foaming), and, wait for it, buttery flavoring."

You're psychologically hard-wired to want it

Don't feel bad if you simply can't resist the pull of movie theater popcorn — you might actually be sort of powerless to it. Per "Food Doc" Bob Hutkins, it isn't just the buttery goodness that sucks us in. "There is also a major psychological factor that makes us like movie popcorn beyond the inherent flavor of the popcorn," Hutkins explained in the Lincoln Journal Star. "Popcorn and movies are such a natural pairing that we even refer to certain films as 'popcorn movies.'" 

Moviegoers' connection to popcorn is so strong, in fact, that we'll even eat it if it isn't that fresh — and the big buckets the popcorn is served in might even make us eat more. "Moviegoers who were given fresh popcorn ate 45.3 percent more popcorn when it was given to them in large containers. This container-size influence is so powerful that even when the popcorn was disliked, people still ate 33.6 percent more popcorn when eating from a large container than from a medium-size container," according to a study by Cornell University.

So, if you feel as though the movie-going experience wouldn't be the same without a bucket of popcorn, you're certainly not alone.  

A straw is the key to perfectly buttered popcorn

When it comes to buttering your movie theater popcorn, the struggle is real, right? If you pump a few liberal squirts right onto the top of the bucket or bag, as most of us are wont to do, you run the risk of making the top layer of your popcorn soggy — while the bottom is as dry as a bone. Ugh! Some people go through the extra trouble of asking for an additional bag or bucket. This enables them to pour part of the popcorn in one bucket, butter the top of both, and then recombine them for a more thorough butter application. 

But thanks to one genius Redditor, your movie-theater-popcorn-butter experience is about to change forever. All you need is an item that is readily available at the concession stand. "Movie theater popcorn hack: Use a straw on the machine to get butter to the middle of the bag, and not just on the top," they revealed. In 2014, Huffington Post ruminated on the brilliance of this hack, saying, "The straw allows you to funnel the butter into the depths of the popcorn bag, so you can spread it out evenly. No longer will you face the driest popcorn at the bottom of the barrel. Now you can enjoy evenly buttered popcorn throughout your movie-going experience, no matter what size bag you order." 

Mind blown. 

It might not be fresh

Some things in life have a way of lulling you into a false sense of security, and movie theater popcorn is apparently one of them. Think about it — you assume it's always made fresh because you can see it in the popper when you're at the concession stand. However, that isn't always the case, if anonymous movie theater employees are to be believed.

In 2018, Noteabley looked into what, if anything, moviegoers might not know about the movie-going experience. Suffice it to say, the unidentified employees had more than a few secrets up their sleeves. Case in point? Per one anonymous concession stand worker, on quiet nights "extra popcorn would be stored in trash bags and kept in the back room until anywhere between two and five days later." Somewhere in that window of time, employees would pull the bagged popcorn back out, reheat it, and sell it to moviegoers.

Granted, this probably isn't the practice at all movie theaters. However, there's really no way to tell who does or doesn't save and recycle popcorn. But hey, you're going to slather it in faux butter anyway, right? And even if it's stale, you'll probably eat it regardless (see psychological compulsion referenced above). 

You can spice it up

While bringing random food and drink items into the movie theater is frowned upon (even if we do all do it), no one says you can't bring your own spices. It's the movie theater loophole you may have been missing all your life. If you're serious about your popcorn game, though, it's a must-try.

Yes, some movie theaters have a few flavored salt toppings sitting out near the you-pump liquid "butter." However, others offer nothing for those of us who crave something with a little more pizzazz. The solution? Bring in your own stash of spice toppings. The best part about this popcorn hack is that there are so many different directions you could go, depending on what flavor you're craving. 

Neighborhood suggests DIY popcorn seasonings like smoky BBQ, Parmesan, garlic, and herb, cinnamon sugar, and even peanut butter (made with powdered PB). But the sky really is the limit — mix up a small bag to your liking, smuggle it into the theater, and season away.

Not all movie theater popcorn is created equal

You might think all movie theater popcorn is essentially the same, and that would be an easy assumption to make. After all, it sounds like the formula doesn't vary much: popcorn, Flavacol, and Butter Flavored Topping. However — and this is a particularly interesting however — discount site Groupon discovered that different movie theaters do switch things up a bit. Naturally, this means that not all movie theater popcorn tastes the same. 

For example, both Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Theatres use coconut oil when popping their popcorn. If you're lucky enough to have a Landmark Theatre near you, which is known for showing independent and foreign films, you'll be treated to honest-to-goodness actual butter. And some movie theaters, like ShowPlace ICON, even offer gourmet popcorn topped with delights like crispy chunks of pork. 

But according to Groupon's ranking, the tastiest movie theater popcorn in all the land is served at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas. "During films, a silent wait staff covertly delivers bottomless popcorn in a classic steel bowl, flavored with real butter and served with a side of herbed parmesan," they explained. So, uh, road-trip-movie-night anyone? 

There's such a thing as popcorn concession etiquette

If you have social anxiety, the following information probably won't thrill you. Because, as it turns out, there does exist an unwritten code of movie theater popcorn etiquette we should all be more mindful of. For example, you might think you're saving the concession stand employee time by simply tossing your refillable popcorn bag or bucket on the table and saying, "Popcorn," but — according to Redditors who've worked in movie theaters — this is a big no-no. Understandably, it makes the worker feel like you're disrespecting them or as though they are a lesser person than you. As one employee put it on a Reddit thread about movie theater pet peeves, "Seriously, people. A customer who uses complete sentences is a good customer indeed. I am a person, not a vending machine." 

And here's another concession etiquette rule that'll keep you on the good side of movie theater employees — don't insist on "fresh" popcorn late at night. As one current theater employee explained, "We usually make our last batch at around 9:45 so we don't burn ourselves on the popper when trying to clean it." Theoretically, if you're the pushy patron who has to have just-popped popcorn at the very end of the night, you're probably responsible for some poor concession stand sap's arm getting singed. 

You're allowed to ask for mods

Every self-respecting moviegoer has tried to perfect their popcorn buttering technique. Sure, there's the straw hack, but maybe you're only just learning about such sorcery. Or perhaps you prefer not to get liquid butter all over your hands, which is bound to happen until you perfect this hack. 

The Takeout decided to get to the bottom of this conundrum in April 2019, heading to the pros to find out how best to butter popcorn in a way that preserves its integrity. Kyle Cubr, the operations manager at Chicago's beloved Music Box Theatre, admitted to The Takeout that he appreciates the scoop-and-butter method. "I've always been a fan of scooping half of it into a bag. Then you run butter over it, and you shake it up a bit so that it helps disperse it amongst the popcorn. Then hit it with a layer of butter on top, and do your best to shake it again, [though] there's a certain limitation before it'll spill out," he explained.

What you may not know, however, is that you can ask the concession stand workers to make butter modifications for you. Said Cubr, "There is a woman that comes here frequently and she asks for it in seven layers. So we have to take what I stated earlier, but break it down like it's taco dip. And so we fill up a seventh of a bag, butter it, add more, add more. She loves it."

It's overpriced, but here's why

If you tend to munch on popcorn at home just as much as you do at the movies, you've probably realized by now that movie theater popcorn is majorly overpriced. After all, you can get 24-bags of Great Value butter-flavored microwave popcorn from Walmart for less than $5. Then there's movie theater popcorn.

Per CNN Money, a medium bag of movie theater popcorn costs a mere 60 cents to make — but is sold for around $6. That accounts for a 900 percent markup. Before you condemn movie theaters for being greedy capitalists, though, know that there's a pretty reasonable explanation. Jack Oberleitner, a 55-year veteran of movie theaters turned consultant, revealed the reality behind pricy popcorn. "The film industry will charge movie theaters upwards of 70 percent of the box office revenue," Oberleitner told Marketplace in 2014. And while that number fluctuates over the years, the bottom line remains that studios get the lion's share of ticket proceeds. Factor in things like rent, air conditioning (we all know how frigid theaters stay), and technology, and the cost to run a movie theater really racks up considering the hit to movie theater owners' profits. 

Enter, concessions. Per Marketplace, concessions only account for 20 percent of gross revenues but represent around 40 percent of theaters' profits. So, that overpriced bucket of popcorn means you're supporting a hard-working business person as opposed to lining the pockets of movie studio execs (even more).

It's considered poor form to leave your bucket behind

Want to guarantee you'll land on your local movie theater employees' most hated list? Abandoning your empty popcorn bucket anywhere but the trash once the movie is over will get you there. In fact, on a Reddit thread revealing the biggest pet peeves of movie theater employees, the people manning movie theaters seemed especially fired up about such slobby behavior. 

"Seriously, I can maybe understand very young kids but adults? Learn how to pick up after yourselves, people. Why do you people think it's okay to not pick up after yourself?" one employee railed. Another shared that some people take their popcorn-ditching behavior to truly absurd lengths: "Picking up trash isn't fun when you could have thrown it away yourself but spelling out 'hey' in popcorn on the floor sure as hell isn't cute." (Yikes! You know who you are.)

For any wisenheimers out there who may be thinking picking up floor popcorn is just part of the job description, one Redditor explained why that logic is so problematic. "There's a difference between expecting somebody to perform the job they're paid to do and intentionally making it harder for them," the Redditor said, elaborating, "So, just in case the message wasn't clear, the staff are obligated to clean up 'accidents' in the theater, but the strategically placed trash cans imply that patrons are expected to throw away their own trash."