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CinemaCon 2015: Theater owners brace for new calorie labeling mandate on concessions

Dillon Smith gets popcorn for customers in the concession stand at the TK/Starlite Drive-In Theater on September 28, 2013 in Neligh, Nebraska.
Dillon Smith gets popcorn for customers in the concession stand at the TK/Starlite Drive-In Theater on September 28, 2013 in Neligh, Nebraska.
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The Food and Drug Administration announced last year that your local multiplex will have to start posting nutritional information about all of its concessions by the end of 2015. So by the time you see the next “Star Wars” movie in December, you'll probably know exactly how many actual calories there are in your favorite movie theater snacks.

If you don’t want your moviegoing experience ruined, cover your ears and stop reading now, because that big tub of popcorn can have as many as 1,200 calories — with three days’ worth of saturated fat and as much as 1,500 milligrams of sodium. And that’s without the butter. The butter.

From your body’s perspective, that’s a real horror movie.

At this week’s CinemaCon, exhibitors have been patrolling the trade floor looking at all of the new snacks they can sell to audiences without freaking them out with the new FDA regulations.

A former heart surgeon named Dr. Ron Law has an interesting idea:

"Edamame at the might say why edamame at the movies?" said Dr. Law on the CinemaCon trade floor in Las Vegas. "What people choose to eat is changing very quickly. I think theaters are looking for alternatives and this is the answer. I think edamame’s time has come.”

Law is at CinemaCon for the first time peddling his bags of pre-salted soy beans. He calls them Eda-Movie, and boasts that an entire eight-ounce pack has just 150 calories. He thinks his soybean solution should sell for about five bucks.

That money is critical. With box office admissions down to their lowest level since 1995, concessions keep many theaters in the black more than ever. Movie theater owners sold about $4 billion in concessions last year, and they can make as much as half their income from snacks and sodas.

While a lot of high-end theaters have been selling upscale food and alcohol lately, the major chains still traffic in Red Vines and Milk Duds. It’ll be important that popular candies have their own versions of Hollywood sequels — or reboots.

Here’s what’s new from the makers of Red Vines:

"This year we’re focusing on our best-selling Sour Punch, and it's in brand new assorted flavors," said Liz Negrau, national sales manager for American Licorice Company. "We’re so happy to be able to introduce lemon for the first time, so we’ve got our best-selling strawberry, blue raspberry, and zappin' apple, and now complete with lemon, only available in the four-ounce theater tray."

Now, even if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you soon should be able to get a White Castle burger that has no meat or animal products in it. 

"It's something that we tested last year, we brought it out in January in our restaurants and it did quite well," said Rob Camp, vice president and general manager at White Castle Food Products, LLC. "We're working with Dr. Praeger's on seeing what we can do to maybe bring it out in frozen."

But we all know what we really love for a movie snack.

"I feel that we need good labeling laws," said Frank Morrison, president of Nebraska Popcorn. "Popcorn without butter on it is only about 45 calories per cup. So really it's a low-calorie food, what we add to it adds the calories."

Ultimately, movie fans may not really care how unhealthy the concessions are. After all, that’s part of the joy of heading to the multiplex, according to John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

"When people go to the movies they go to the movies to escape the hassles and stresses of their day, and to escape their diet," said Fithian. "I buy things at the cinema for my kids that I would never buy at home, and I think most people are like that. People come to the cinemas because they want to have fun."

Fithian says he’s not worried that the calorie counts will hurt concession sales. Everyone already knows that a Double-Double from In-N-Out is a lot worse for you than carrot sticks — and the lines at that burger joint are just as long as moviegoers waiting to see “Furious 7.”

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