A trip to the movie theater isn’t quite the same without a tub of popcorn.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Early movie theaters were grand, sophisticated rooms, designed to mimic the elegance of traditional theaters. Theater owners certainly didn’t want their customers bringing in popcorn; the kernels would quickly become part of the expensive carpeting, and the loud munching sound could ruin the moviegoing experience.
That changed during the Great Depression. Theaters became a welcome distraction for Americans, and to entice patrons, some theaters began offering popcorn for a few cents. During those desperate times, theaters had to use any available resources to sell tickets, and popcorn gradually became part of the moviegoing experience.
Why popcorn instead of, say, potato chips? For one, popcorn could be cooked without a kitchen. It was also inexpensive, so theaters could sell a big bag for a nickel and still make a considerable profit. By some accounts, a $10 bag of popcorn could literally last for years.
But another factor helped to make popcorn spread through theaters nationwide.
In 1927, “talkies” hit theaters, introducing the real voices of film actors to an adoring public—and opening films up to a much wider audience, since literacy was no longer a prerequisite for a day at the movies. The sound of the films also helped to quiet the sounds of munching.
As films became more popular, theaters relaxed their prohibition on popcorn. Theaters that didn’t adapt simply didn’t survive; as Smithsonian Magazine notes, one Dallas theater chain installed popcorn machines in 75 of its 80 locations, only to see the remaining 5 locations—their most lucrative theaters—fail miserably.
Popcorn quickly became a mainstay of theaters, buoyed by rationing during World War II; strict sugar rations prevented many theaters from selling candy. By one estimate, Americans responded by increasing their popcorn consumption sixfold.
In the early 1950s, television became popular, and theater popcorn sales decreased, as more people chose to cook the snack at home. Gradually, it regained ground. In 1993, the popcorn industry sold 1.15 billion pounds, an all-time high.
Today, Americans consume 14 billion quarts of popcorn annually.
That’s about 43 quarts per man, woman, and child. The vast majority of that amount is consumed in the home, but theaters and stadiums still account for about 30 percent of the snack’s popularity.
But while home-cooked popcorn is a fairly wholesome food, theater popcorn isn’t quite as healthy. A small buttered popcorn contains about 370 calories, along with 20 grams of fat and 40 grams of carbohydrates. Many theaters compound the issue by providing combos, which add in soft drinks.
“Where else can you be so distracted (by the movie) that you don’t realize you’ve just swallowed 1,400 to 1,600 calories?” wrote researchers in the Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Those researchers found that one chain’s largest popcorn tub packed in more calories than a McDonald’s Big Mac. Each container carried 20 cups of popcorn with an astounding 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat.
Some dietitians believe that movie theater snacks pose an unusual problem: We eat them regardless of whether or not we’re hungry.
We could, of course, abstain from popcorn. Unfortunately, scientists say that’s easier said than done.
“We associate a particular event, like watching a movie, or we could be watching TV or whatever kind of scenario, we automatically assume that goes with eating,” said dietitian Heather Fink of Indiana University Health Sports Performance to Medical Daily. “And it can, but it doesn’t have to, especially if a person isn’t hungry then there would be really no reason that you would have to be eating while you watch a movie.”
That’s apparently true even if we don’t particularly enjoy the popcorn. One study from Cornell University presented random moviegoers with either stale or fresh popcorn in either medium or small containers. Moviegoers who received large containers ate more than the individuals who received small containers—even if they admitted that they didn’t like the taste. The stale popcorn wasn’t enough of a deterrent, as the moviegoers expected to eat the treat at the theater.
Our snacking habits may also change based on the subject matter of the movie.
That’s according to research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. [Editorial note: This study, along with two others published by the same authors, have been flagged with an Expression of Concern by their publisher, JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. The journal, as well as science watchdogs, noticed inconsistencies with the studies’ data and data methodology that were undisclosed—so take the results with a large grain of salt.]
It found that those watching sad movies eat an average of 55 percent more popcorn than those watching light-hearted films.
Researchers believe that general distress promotes increased eating, although they added that boredom might be a related factor; study participants who watched documentaries ate more than those who watched comedies.
The good news is that plain, unbuttered popcorn is still a perfectly acceptable treat, provided that you’re hungry enough to pick up a cup. A standard serving contains 3.6 grams of dietary fiber, so the calories aren’t exactly empty. Dietitians simply recommend skipping the butter and salt, except on special occasions.
Your movie theater will thank you—modern establishments make about 85 percent of their profits from concession stands, and popcorn is, of course, a big seller. After all, to many people, popcorn is synonymous with movies (and theaters certainly want to keep it that way).