The familiar aroma of steaming buttery morsels; the sound of crunching amid uproarious laughter; the taste of subsidized, pesticide-ridden corn harvested from vast industrial monocultures — yes, there's nothing like a good ol' tub of American popcorn.
Most moviegoers are quite satisfied with the American ritual in which friends, families and lovers alike binge on heaps of factory farm corn stewing in pools of oil and sodium. To be fair, occasional gluttony at the movies is nothing to discourage; theaters are meant for tradition, escape and indulgence. Unfortunately, that atmosphere cloaks calories and reckless agribusiness. Luckily for conscious consumers who vote with their dollars, there are now ways to enjoy movie popcorn while making a gentler impact on personal and environmental health.
The easiest of these ways should be choosing theaters with organic, all natural popcorn and snacks. Yet the organic-obsessed metropolis we call New York City oddly offers few such options. During this summer blockbuster season, the list of green and healthy concession counters is short but valuable.
323 Sixth Ave. at 3rd St.
IFC is one of the city's only venues serving certified organic popcorn. You can also buy such snacks as dried fruit and nut mixes or assorted pastries and baked goods from Sacred Chow, a local vegan eatery. This historic building, once the Waverly Theater, reopened in 2005 as a state-of-the-art cinema for independent, foreign and documentary films.
Landmark Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston St. on Lower East Side
Here you'll find "gourmet concessions" such as vegan cookies, an espresso bar and popcorn with eight different seasonings. The popcorn isn't organic, but Landmark Theaters did launch "EcoSelect" popcorn bags in each of its 55 theaters this past April. These certified natural fiber bags are 100 percent biodegradable. Nearly 50 percent of the energy used to manufacture EcoSelect bags comes from hydropower and renewable bio-fuels.
Angelika Film Center and Cafe
13 West Houston St. at Mercer St.
Again there is no organic popcorn, but this theater sells local Sacred Chow food as well. You can enjoy vegan salads and deli sandwiches right at the lobby cafe.
209 West Houston St. between 6th Ave. and Varick St.
This concession counter serves Naked Orville Redenbacher kernels popped in peanut oil and optional sea salt, offering a slightly healthier alternative compared to conventional theaters with higher sodium and saturated fat levels.
So why do healthy, green concessions even matter?
Americans consume 17.3 billion quarts of popcorn per year, according to the National Agricultural Library. It is likely that the Meccas of popcorn eating - i.e. movie theater chains - significantly affect demand for industrial corn. Movie theaters not only use massive amounts of subsidized corn kernels and syrups, but also subsidized vegetable oils.
To you, theater popcorn may be an occasional and harmless indulgence. Yet that same indulgence every day in every audience in every theater chain across the country leaves quite the footprint. What's more, some people go to the movies once a week, meaning they may consume more than three Big Macs worth of calories in each weekend's popcorn tub.
Why don't more theaters think it matters?
Theaters make most of their money on concessions, so they benefit from frugal cost cutting on snacks. Organic kernels are expensive. Meanwhile, popcorn from subsidized corn is cheaper than the bag it comes in. Coconut oil — a butter substitute with extremely high saturated fat — is cheaper than butter and doesn't have to be refrigerated. And most people already gripe over concessions prices as they are.
Then there are the factors of tradition, escape and indulgence linked to every theater experience. High-calorie and processed snacks are part of a deeply-rooted American moviegoing custom, thanks to careful marketing. Health and environmental concerns are rarely considered in such a mechanical, entertainment-oriented part of our culture.
Homemade kernel concoctions
Whether you're boycotting theater popcorn or just enjoying your home theater, making popcorn from scratch lets you be creative while taking control of your health and environmental impact. Olive oil and sea salt are just the beginning of healthier and fresher tasting kernels. You can get creative with organic popcorn recipes, or try unique brands like 479 Popcorn
, which offers organic concoctions like Madras Curry Coconut with Cashews, Black Truffle with White Cheddar and much more.
Demand better choices
Average moviegoers will eat wisely only when theaters offer healthy options conveniently on a silver platter (or celebrity-clad cardboard tub). That means conscious consumers like you must be the ones to take action and demand better menus.
First, try choosing healthy concessions or responsible theaters. When you don't see a proper outlet to vote with your dollars, speak up. Tell local theaters you want organics on the menu. Start with smaller city theaters with stronger ties to the community. Some consumers are already taking action using Facebook to gain support or start petitions. Consumer movements involving boycotts, blogs, social media groups can be powerful, so never underestimate your ability to bring greener business practices to your community.