The Real Reason Most Movie Theater Popcorn Is Actually Vegan

Movies and movie theaters are synonymous with popcorn. The wafting aroma, the brittle pop with each chew, the copious handfuls being shoved into your mouth as your eyes are glued to the screen — there is something nostalgic and comforting about having a bowl of popcorn on hand when having a movie night. Which is yet another reason that the "myth" of vegan movie-theater popcorn blew up with such intensity across the internet for the past few years.

Similar to the fervor with which vegans sometimes discuss Oreos, movie theater popcorn has been a point of contention for many plant-based eaters. A simple Google search yields pages upon pages of vegan and animal-welfare-based websites ruminating, "is movie theater popcorn really vegan?" from stalwarts like PETA to small, humble food blogs with a vested interest in ethical, plant-based living. Unfortunately, it's difficult to say with total certainty whether or not movie theater popcorn is 100% vegan.

Food52 notes that most movie theater popcorn is made with popcorn kernels, Flavacol, and some sort of oil. Flavacol contains salt, "artificial butter flavor," and two separate coloring agents. That "artificial butter flavor" is the key to the vegan debate. Note the word "artificial." For many, this may indicate a dearth of animal products.

What is movie theater popcorn made with?

Unfortunately, we may never know exactly what's in the compound, since its listed ingredients tend to be varying types of artificial or natural flavors, but not with any sort of substantial, real-food substance tethering the product to a plant-based lifestyle or diet.

Of course, it should also be noted that this may differ based on theater, location, corporation, and other variables. Veg FAQs notes that AMC popcorn is popped in canola oil, but their "popcorn seasoning" does contain dairy. Regal Cinemas purports to use a dairy-free "buttery" topping, but this may change from theater to theater. Cinemark uses "popcorn salt" that contains both dairy and soy, while Cineplex is supposedly "gluten and vegan friendly," but notes that it may be prepared in a non-gluten free or vegan-friendly kitchen.

At the end of the day, it's all up to you and how all-encompassing your veganism is that will dictate what you might expect from your next trip to the movie theater. If you've been assured that the "butter flavoring" at that particular theater is inherently and fully artificial, go wild! But if you're a vegan with any level of concern, it may be safer to steer clear. There's also always the choice to opt for just popcorn + oil + salt, if you're especially adamant, since there's certainly no animal product in those ingredients.

Beyond veganism concerns, though, there is the bigger picture question here to ponder: What exactly is in "artificial butter seasoning/salt/flavoring"? That may be a conversation another day.