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Is that Right? Movie-theaters should offer healthful snack options?

Let's dish about movie theater food.

(Big stock photo)

Earlier this week, Sony Pictures head Michael Lynton exhorted movie theaters to add healthful snack options to the fare offered at their concession stands. Lynton made clear that he didn't want theaters to stop selling the standard soda, candy and buttery-flavored popcorn. But he cited his company's survey of theater-goers, in which many claimed they'd buy foods such as yogurt, fruit cups, veggies with dip, baked chips and air-popped popcorn, if those choices were available.

The survey's numbers seem kind of squishy to me: The Associated Press account of Lynton's talk reports that in the survey of patrons at 26 movie theaters, "two-thirds of movie-goers said they would be likely to buy healthy concessions if available...60 percent of parents thought that healthier concessions would enhance the movie-going experience and...42 percent of parents would buy concessions at theaters more often if healthier choices were offered." So how many people would actually buy this stuff? Sixty-six percent? 60 percent? 42 percent?

Still, Lynton's request seems reasonable. From the AP report:

"I don't mean close the window for popcorn, soda and candy. Audiences love them and should always be able to buy them at your theaters," Lynton said in the keynote address as the four-day convention opened. "I can almost imagine the Romans eating popcorn and drinking Coke at the Coliseum 2,000 years ago. Or the Greeks munching on Sno-Caps at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens."
But "by bringing healthier snacks into your concession stands, you would be helping our country meet an urgent public health need," Lynton said.

Lynton's concerns are well-founded, according to this November 2009 report from the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. Upholding previous research, the new report finds that movie-theater popcorn delivers far more calories and saturated fat than anybody needs to eat in a day, let alone during a two-hour movie. Sodas and candy are nothing but empty calories, and plenty of 'em, too.

Add to that our predilection for mindless eating, as exemplified by Brian Wansink's groundbreaking experiments at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. In one study, Wansink found that folks eating movie-theater popcorn from large containers ate 45 percent more than those who ate from medium-sized containers -- even when the popcorn was 10 days old and stale.

I'm certainly not going to go on record as supporting the nutritional value of movie-theater popcorn, something I haven't eaten in years. But I have to admit that because my family goes to the movies maybe four or five times a year, tops, I really don't mind treating my kids to a small bag of popcorn while they watch. They both typically choose water over soda, anyway, minimizing the damage to their diets.

As for folks who say that healthful movie-theater snacks are a good idea, I hope they're willing to put their money where their mouths are. Because this scheme can only work if folks actually buy those foods. Otherwise, adding them to the snack lineup would be just an empty exercise in righteousness -- and an economically doomed one, to boot.

I'd ask those folks, too, to take a hard look at the foods their families scarf down while watching DVDs at home. If those snacks come straight from boxes or bags, and if they include sweetened beverages, they aren't likely much better than what you'd buy at the theater. And I'll bet they're consumed far more frequently.

Here's today's poll:

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Me Minus 10 , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Next: A first-hand look at school lunch


I'd rather see them get real about portion sizes.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 19, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

Well, I'd like to see it as an option, but I have to be realistic and admit that I probably wouldn't be very likely to buy it, so I doubt that they would make enough money to continue. I love love love movie theater popcorn (with "butter") and Sno-Caps. If I'm going to spend $20 on movie snacks, I want it to be on the thing that I enjoy, not a pale imitation just to have something to munch on.

I also wonder about the "healthfulness" of whatever the replacements would be. They're not going to be fresh fruits and veggies, because those don't last long enough. So I suspect you'd end up with things like low-fat Doritos -- basically, the same highly-processed artificial crap, just maybe with an occasional whole grain or flax seed in so they can claim it's better for you. Remember when everyone went nuts for frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, thinking it was so much healthier? And, of course, that led to, hey, I can have a large instead of a small, because it's not ice cream. And then 5 years later we realized that the froyo still had like 600 calories and umpteen grams of fat, and maybe that could help explain the 20 extra pounds. . . .

So for me, I'd rather just have the stuff that I really really like, but make sure to do it rarely.

Posted by: laura33 | March 19, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Americans need to let go of the idea that they "need" snacks. Obesity has steadily increased since the 1960's, when Americans started to abandon the idea of scheduled meals. Eat three meals a day, and have a (truly) healthy snack or two if you must, like fruit.

If people need food to make the movie experience more enjoyable, then they're choosing lousy movies. Do your best to attend only good movies, and let yourself be fully present for the experience.

Posted by: Nutmeg2 | March 19, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I don't go to the movies all that often and of the times that I do, more often than not, I end up going to get something to eat/drink before or after to avoid the insane movie theater food prices. (Even ice cream at the place down the street from the theater is usually cheaper than the $7.50 for a small popcorn, and more often than not the line's shorter to boot!)

Given that it's a rare occasion that I do go to the movies and get popcorn, I probably wouldn't change my habits even if they had other options.

Posted by: | March 19, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

One of the local movie theater chains used to offer air popped popcorn. It wasn't very good (and I actually eat air popped popcorn all the time). I don't know if its still an option but I doubt it.

Posted by: archers44 | March 19, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I'd reframe the option...i don't go to the movies as often as i used to because i am aware that it's a danger zone of bad eating enticements. Once i made the connection between walking into the theater, paying big bucks, and then feeling sluggish and tired from eating too much, my choice was clear...quit going to the movies.

Better snack choices...or a policy allowing me to bring my own healthier snacks...would encourage me to attend more films.

Posted by: las100 | March 19, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

It's nice to provide options for people, but it won't necessarily lead to healthier eating. Fast food chains like McDonalds have found that when they offer healthier options, sales go up for the unhealthy menu items.

Studies on consumer decision-making, for example Wilcox et al (2009, Journal of Consumer Research), suggest that when people have the choice unhealthy and healthy options, considering a healthy option may serve as a vicarious goal fulfillment (e.g., goals for eating healthy or losing weight), so people are then more likely to choose the most unhealthy option. When people face choices between unhealthy options only, they are more likely to choose the least unhealthy option than the most unhealthy option.

Posted by: nonpareil_b5 | March 19, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Better, Let people bring their own healthy snacks. What deprive the theater of their obscene markups. Thats unamerican.

Posted by: alterego3 | March 19, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I voted no, because I know I wouldn't buy them and I doubt seriously that other people would. People who want to eat healthy will sneak in snacks in the great American tradition. And let's face it: there is no NEED to snack during a movie. No one is going to faint during 96 minutes without food.

If you want to eat healthy during a movie, bring back the drive in. Now THAT was fun. There was a snack bar for the usual nastiness, or you could bring in anything you wanted with you in the car. We always brought popcorn made at home with us in an enormous tupperware bowl with a lid.

Posted by: BadMommy1 | March 19, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't go to the movies very often (too many cell phone users) and I'm vegan so I'm not tempted by the fare there anyway. I have to wonder how loud baked chips would be.

I agree that nobody would starve in the course of a movie but we've all heard that theaters make most of their money on concessions, so they aren't likely to go away.

By the way, Cinema Arts theater has fruit smoothies, hummus plates, and popcorn cooked in canola. Maybe there are others too.

Posted by: sarahabc | March 20, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Food service shouldn't be available at theaters--it might bring the cost of a ticket down as well...

Posted by: mil1 | March 20, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

As always, it's a question of the chicken and the egg. You have to be offered something better before you can choose it.

If we can reform the junk offered in school vending machines, movie theater fare must be next. There are some unbelievably DELICIOUS healthy snacks out there.

Posted by: drmama | March 21, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree with RedBird. Let people buy the movie food they've always enjoyed but in smaller sizes. The small popcorn and soda that we used to be able to buy at a theater doesn't even exist anymore. That's absurd. Of course, smaller sizes would also be cheaper which is why movie theaters will never go for it.

Posted by: NickNaigm | March 22, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

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