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After the popping, consider the topping

Movie theater popcorn is pricey, but what are you getting for your money?

Theaters pop their popcorn and top it off differently. Most area theaters contacted by the Globe pop their popcorn in canola oil, while AMC Entertainment Inc. and Regal Entertainment Group use coconut oil at their theaters in the Boston area and the Landmark Kendall Square uses sunflower oil.

Margo G. Wootan , director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. She said canola oil is healthier, but a partially hydrogenated canola oil used by many chains, including National Amusements' Showcase Cinema, is high in saturated and trans fats.

"Sunflower oil is probably your best bet," she said.

Several theaters, including the Brattle in Cambridge, the Capitol in Arlington, the Somerville Theatre, the Landmark Kendall Square, and the West Newton Cinema, top their popcorn with real butter.

Regal, AMC, and Showcase all use partially hydrogenated toppings with artificial butter flavor. The toppings, with names like Supur-Kist Two and Golden Delight, come in large jugs, don't need to be refrigerated, and cost a fraction of what butter costs.

David Bramante , the co-owner of the West Newton Cinema, said his buttered popcorn is so good that some people stop in to buy it and don't even stay for a movie.

But Bill Hanney , the owner of Entertainment Cinemas, which has theaters in Cambridge, Springfield, and South Dennis, said he conducted a test at his Springfield theater to see whether customers preferred real butter or butter-flavored topping.

"It didn't make a difference, so we stopped using butter," he said.

Wootan urged theaters to disclose the nutrition content of their snacks, so moviegoers would have some idea of what they're eating. Legislation pending on Beacon Hill would require such disclosures.

CalorieKing.com, a website that provides nutritional information on most foods, says a medium popcorn at a movie theater containing about 16 cups, has 1,170 calories and 90 grams of fat. That's about half a person's daily caloric intake. Slurp a 32-ounce Coke, and that's roughly 300 calories.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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