Coming Soon to Theaters: Calorie Counts

Across the U.S., movie theaters are preparing to make some unwanted concessions.

For weeks, theater owners have lobbied the Food and Drug Administration and congressional staff members for exemption from proposed rules requiring their snack stands to post the calories in popcorn, nachos, hot pretzels and other prepared foods. Today, the FDA is expected to announce its decision. (Update: As of March 30, it looks like a decision still hasn’t been made.)

Movie-concession disclosure rules fall under the same healthcare law provision that seeks to educate consumers by requiring chain restaurants to post the nutritional content of menu items. But the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) fought for exclusion, contending that Congress didn’t specifically mention movie theaters when deliberating the measure last year.

NATO also argues that theater snack bars aren’t serving meals. Health advocates, however, claim the selections are similar enough to fast-food and should be subject to the same rules.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group focusing on health and nutrition issues, moviegoers need nutrition information to manage their weight and reduce risk of diseases including diabetes and high blood pressure.

In a 2009 lab analysis of popcorn from the nation’s major theater chains (Regal, AMC, and Cinemark), the Center found that a large tub contained up to 1,460 calories — as many as three Big Macs.

“Just because you happen to be doing something else [watching a movie] while you’re eating doesn’t mean that those 1,000 calories won’t stop going to your waistline,” said Margo Wootan, the Center’s director of nutrition policy.

Because movie snacks — notably profitable popcorn — generate about one-third of the major theater chains’ revenue, theater owners say the FDA’s proposed rules are an intrusion on business. (NATO recommends that the FDA exempt all companies that earn less than 35 percent of gross revenue from food sales.)

Although concessions nutrition information is already available online (and often by request), there is some concern among theater owners that in-your-face calorie counts will have a greater impact on potential popcorn- and nacho-buyers — and a greater impact on sales.

Then again, there’s this take on the matter, from NATO’s general counsel: “The average person goes to the theater four times a year … I don’t think they care.”

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