Popcorn drizzled with butter is one of those classic movie snacks that completes the experience of the theater. Topping the bag with candy or layering the butter throughout isn't exactly the healthiest thing, but it's okay to treat yourself once in a while, isn't it? Well, we have a bit of news for theater-popcorn lovers everywhere.

What Is In The Butter On Theater Popcorn?

a bucket of spilled popcorn on a red background

Frankly, it's probably a good thing if you've never asked yourself this question. It turns out that the butter you request in cinemas isn't butter at all, but flavoring mixed with a bit of coloring. According to Stacey Ballis of Extra Crispy, the stuff you're tasting is nothing more than Flavacol and butter-flavored topping.

While Ballis was in college, she worked for a student organization that arranged the social events on campus. She worked movie nights, which meant she needed to learn how to prepare buttered popcorn. That's where the Flavacol and flavoring come in.

Flavacol is essentially a fine salt sprinkled on popcorn to give it its distinctive yellow color. It is Flavacol that gives the kernels the appearance of being buttered. People claim they taste a butter flavor in this powder, but there's no added flavoring. Talk about the placebo effect hard at work.

a close up of buttered popcorn

Now let's move on to the butter flavoring. If alarm bells are ringing in your head, there's a good reason for it. According to Ballis, your popcorn contains a slew of chemicals and colorings, including:

  • hydrogenated soybean oil (pretty much just trans fat)
  • beta-carotene (a red/orange coloring typically found in fruits and vegetables)
  • TBHQ (which stands for tertiary butylhydroquinone, an inexpensive way to prevent certain foods from changing color as they sit on the shelves)
  • polydimethylsiloxane (a chemical that prevents foaming)

Ballis adds that the flavoring in movie theater butter isn't really butter at all. It was never clear to her what exactly made the butter taste the way it did, but those she worked with admitted it wasn't butter. To make matters worse, the "butter" on movie popcorn is higher in calories than real butter.

Healthy Alternatives To Popcorn

In The Theater

If you've turned to movie popcorn for years, chances are you're not going to stop now. While popcorn isn't the healthiest thing you could purchase, you can minimize the harm done by ordering a smaller portion. Try grabbing a small bag instead of a large one, and skip the butter or toppings. If you're lucky, you may even get a cool collectible bucket usually reserved for kids.

gummy fish on a white background

Refrain from reaching for those bags of chocolate at the concession stand, too. There's a lot of sugar in bags of gummy bears or Swedish fish, but these candies don't have as many calories. So, if you're really itching for a pack of candy, purchase those instead.

At Home

You can save your heath and your wallet by preparing some healthy snacks for the theater at home.

Apple slices are an inexpensive and super simple snack to whip up at home. Pack them in a Ziploc bag or small container so you can munch on this superfood. There's no need to stop at apples, though. Pack slices of your favorite fruit, raw vegetables, or create a medley of the two for yourself.

If you have an hour to spare before the film, consider roasting some chickpeas. All you need to do is brush them with a bit of olive oil and add some cayenne pepper for flavoring and a pinch of spice.

a sliced red apple

When you're in a rush, pack a handful of almonds or walnuts to bring with you. No preparation is needed, and you can mix different nuts based on your preferences. Just make sure you don't pack too many, as it's easy to lose track of consumption when you're busy watching a film. Remember that nuts can be high in fat, so try to measure out a proper amount beforehand.

It's fair to say that a good deal of us won't give up theater popcorn, regardless of what the butter's made of. However, if you're reaching for the buttery kernels, you should reconsider; a smaller bag of popcorn without the high-calorie toppings will do less harm. Of course, some apple slices or roasted chickpeas would be an even better option.

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