You’re sitting at the movie theater waiting for the latest blockbuster to hit the screen. As you begin chowing down on your bucket of buttery goodness, the question inevitably pops into your head: How come my homemade popcorn never tastes this good? Well, you’re about to find out.
So sit back, relax, and prepare to learn just how movie theater popcorn is made. And the next time you find yourself with a post-movie-theater-bucket stomach ache, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
1. All popcorn starts off the same
The reason that movie theater popcorn is so damn tasty has nothing to do with the popcorn itself, and everything to do with the process. In fact, all batches of popcorn, regardless of location, begin as a large amount of kernels. And while most grocery stores sell a variety of kernels, all popcorn starts as regular, unseasoned, untouched kernels. Simple as that.
2. Movie theaters don’t have to provide nutrition labels
Bags of microwave popcorn have to display a nutrition label. Movie theaters do not. That said, there’s nothing to prevent them from really going overboard. Because they can be as liberal as they please with salt, oil, and butter (or shall we say “buttery flavor,” which we’ll get to in a minute), there’s no telling how much any given movie theater is pumping into its popcorn production. (Although, a medium popcorn at certain theaters can contain over 1,000 calories.)
3. The secret ingredient is Flavacol
Time to find out what the real secret ingredient is in every bucket of movie theater popcorn. Manufactured by Gold Medal, Flavacol is the “secret sauce” most movie theaters use in order to produce that quintessential popcorn flavor only found in cinemas, stadiums, and the like.
Flavacol is a butter-flavored, popcorn seasoning salt made of extra fine salt flakes. The product is made of four ingredients: salt, artificial butter flavor, and Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. The latter are what give movie theater-style popcorn that signature yellow color. Furthermore, as MTV explains, “Flavacol is used when cooking the popcorn, not as a topping; it’s basically salt with a bunch of other stuff to give the popcorn that movie theater flavor and color.”
4. Flavacol does not contain diacetyl
While most microwave popcorn contains diacetyl — a chemical with a buttery flavor — Flavacol does not. Flavacol contains a proprietary diacetyl-free butter flavoring. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your bucket of movie theater popcorn is free of diacetyl. Most movie theaters use some sort of butter flavored seasoning in addition to Flavacol. And as it turns out, diacetyl can be some pretty dangerous stuff.
5. Too much diacetyl can have a severe impact on your health
In 2000, a respiratory disease was discovered in microwave popcorn plant workers. According to reports, fake butter was the cause of obliterative bronchiolitis, a respiratory disease. “Through these investigations, it was determined that artificial butter flavorings added to the popcorn was responsible for causing the disease,” the CDC reports.
Thankfully, there was an organization that wanted to ensure the future safety of popcorn plant workers and the like. “The findings from NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] investigations in the microwave popcorn and flavorings manufacturing industries provided a basis for a 2004 NIOSH Alert: Preventing Lung Disease in Workers Who Use or Make Flavorings.” Turns out, these “buttery flavorings” can be more dangerous than you’d think.
6. Movie theater “butter” isn’t butter at all
When it comes to movie theater butter, it’s really not butter at all. In fact, it’s a whole mess of chemicals, and the end result is a combination of flavors meant to mimic the taste of butter. Additionally, Extra Crispy says that Flavacol is mainly used for its coloring agents, while the butter flavored topping is really what packs the punch into every bucket of movie theater popcorn.
7. There’s a psychological component
Movies and popcorn is a pairing as common, well-known, and well-liked as peanut butter and jelly. For good reason, we look forward to munching on movie theater popcorn every time we visit the cinema. So naturally, most of us associate going to the movies with that nostalgic buttery popcorn smell.
“There is also a major psychological factor that makes us like movie popcorn beyond the inherent flavor of the popcorn,” Lincoln Journal Star writes. “Popcorn and movies are such a natural pairing that we even refer to certain films as ‘popcorn movies.'” And furthermore, according to research conducted by the University of Southern California and Cornell, regular moviegoers will even eat stale popcorn. And they’ll eat more if it’s in a big bucket, even if they already have a full stomach.
So, the next time you’re heading to dinner and a movie, be sure to either fill up on dinner beforehand. Alternatively, eat nothing at all if you’re still not too scared to eat movie theater popcorn. Because really, who can resist every once in a while?
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