What the Heck Is in Movie Theater Popcorn?

By: Carrie Tatro  | 

popcorn, butter
Who doesn't love to snuggle down into a dark theater with a huge tub of buttered popcorn to watch a great movie? Your body — that's who! Noam Galai/Getty Images

Hey, movie theater popcorn — you salty siren of the cinema — word's out your kernels are covered in chemicals. With no transparency in labeling, how long have you lured moviegoers to the concession counter only to seduce and deceive us with your faux golden, pseudo buttery deliciousness? Not to mention all the big bucks we've spent on those big bogus buckets of you that we so earnestly munch in the dark. Just because it turns out you're inadvertently vegan and gluten free still doesn't mean you're good for us. So, what the heck are you made of anyway?

Meet movie theater popcorn's three main ingredients: Flavacol, butter flavored topping and, wait for it – buttery flavoring. Yum!

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Flavacol is a seasoned powder that goes on the corn before it's popped. It contains only four ingredients: super-fine salt, artificial flavor and two synthetic yellow dyes that give the popcorn its vibrant buttery-ish color. While Flavacol has zero calories and zero fat, carbs, protein, or vitamin and mineral content, it packs a wallop in the sodium department. One teaspoon contains 116 percent of your recommended daily intake of sodium, based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. So, heads up if you have high blood pressure or want to monitor your sodium consumption for other health reasons.

And that butter flavored topping? It — warning, betrayal alert — doesn't have any butter in it at all.

What it does contain is partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat that's super bad for you: think heart disease), beta-carotene (a natural pigment that can also be made in a lab), tertiary Butylhydroquinone or TBHQ (a synthetic preservative that keeps the oily golden fluid from becoming rancid as it sits) and polydimethylsiloxane or PDMS (a silicone-based chemical that prevents, ew, foaming) and is actually, not kidding, the main component of Silly Putty.

The final ingredient? The one that gives movie theater popcorn it's yummy, irresistible taste? TA DA: buttery flavoring, a 100 percent non-dairy, mystery chemical that merely mimics the taste of butter.

Another slap in the face is that movie theater butter flavored topping has 20 more calories per tablespoon than real butter. So, if your large bucket of plain popcorn is about 1,000 calories with just the Flavacol seasoning on it and you choose to add a minimum of three tablespoons of buttery topping or as much as six if you opt for a squirt in the middle and a squirt on top, the large bucket you nosh on while watching the latest blockbuster could be more than 2,000 calories.

Popcorn, you're breaking our hearts. It's gonna be hard to enjoy a movie now that we know we never knew you at all.

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Originally Published: Nov 16, 2018

Movie Theater Popcorn FAQ

Where can you buy movie theater popcorn?
You can obviously purchase it from the concession stand before seeing a movie, but a number of theaters also sell their popcorn for delivery on popular apps like DoorDash and UberEats.
What kind of oil do movie theaters use on popcorn?
There's absolutely no real butter on that movie theater popcorn. It's most likely partially hydrogenated soybean oil, a trans fat that's very unhealthy.
What popcorn do movie theaters use?
Movie theaters use regular popcorn kernels, similar to what you'd buy at the grocery store.
What is Flavacol made of?
Flavacol is a seasoned powder that goes on the corn before it's popped and it's made of four ingredients: salt, artificial butter flavor, FD&C Yellow #5 Lake (E102), and Yellow #6 Lake (E110). The latter two give popcorn that bright, appealing yellow color that movie theater popcorn is known for.
What is the butter on movie theater popcorn?
Movie theater popcorn has absolutely no butter on it. It does have butter flavored topping AND buttery flavoring. The topping is made up of hydrogenated soybean oil, beta-carotene, tertiary Butylhydroquinone or TBHQ, and polydimethylsiloxane or PDMS. The flavoring is made up of non-dairy mystery chemicals.
Where can I buy Flavacol popcorn seasoning?
You can buy Gold Medal's Flavacol on Amazon for around $6 USD.

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