Better seventeen years late than never. The New York Times on Tuesday pulled the curtains on Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) 1994 scare campaign that caused movie-theater popcorn sales to instantly plummet by as much as 50 percent. It wasn't the popcorn itself that CSPI demonized; its target was the saturated fat content that resulted from the coconut oil theaters used to pop it.
Celebrated this week by The Washington Post as "a showman who has come up with myriad headline-grabbing ways of demonizing food ingredients," CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson was widely quoted by media outlets in April 1994 doing just that to coconut oil, calling popcorn that used the oil a nutritional "Godzilla."
From the onset, CSPI's campaign to demonize movie-theater popcorn was devised to make Americans deathly afraid of something they likely never considered a health threat at the time—saturated fat. When a CSPI-funded laboratory study revealed that a medium-sized serving of popcorn contained a whopping 37 grams of saturated fat (exceeding the USDA's recommendation of 20 grams per day), CSPI knew it could strike fear in to moviegoers, wrote Chip and Dan Heath in their 2007 book Made to Stick:
CSPI sent bags of movie popcorn from a dozen theaters in three major cities to a lab for nutritional analysis. The results surprised everyone … the lab results showed, coconut oil was also brimming with saturated fat …
The challenge, [then-CSPI Director of Communications Art] Silverman realized, was that few people know what "37 grams of saturated fat" means. Most of us don't memorize the USDA's daily nutrition recommendations. Is 37 grams good or bad? And even if we have an intuition that it's bad. we'd wonder if was "bad bad" (like cigarettes) or "normal bad" (like a cookie or a milk shake) …
The amount of fat in this popcorn was, in some sense, not rational. It was ludicrous. The CSPI needed a way to shape the message in a way that fully communicated this ludicrousness. Silverman came up with a solution.
CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here's the message it presented: "A medium-sized ‘butter' popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat [Jesus wept] than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!"
After nearly 17 years of CSPI scaring the public silly, scientists are beginning to recognize CSPI's long-running crusade against coconut oil as a box-office bust. Thomas Brenna, a Cornell nutrition science professor, told the Times that coconut oil might not be the evil villain as we've been led to believe:
Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil [that is high in trans fat—not saturated fat], which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data. Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn't so bad for you after all.
I think we in the nutrition field are beginning to say that saturated fats are not so bad, and the evidence that said they were is not so strong.
It's worth noting that the coconut oil movie theatres were using in 1994 was (frequently) partially hydrogenated, and contained trans fat. But in the 1990s CSPI was busily publishing newsletter copy like the now-famous "Trans, shmans." It was coconut oil's saturated fat—not its trans fat—that set Jacobson's finger wagging.
A decade earlier, CSPI had fought to get rid of beef fat in cooking oil, a move which forced food providers to switch to the only viable alternative: partially hydrogenated oil, which contained trans fats. CSPI proclaimed: "All told, the charges against trans fat just don't stand up."
CSPI later flip-flopped. Jacobson commenced a campaign of bashing trans fats and calling for restaurants to dump partially hydrogenated oils. He angrily insisted that trans fats were responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths per year (a highly questionable figure), but failed to mention that his organization was largely responsible for their heavier concentration in the American diet in the first place.
With hindsight, of course, CSPI's coconut-oil scare had some merit—but not for the reasons the group offered. Since the partially hydrogenated version contained trans fat, it's likely the group would have gotten around to attacking it eventually, once trans fat had evolved from hero to villain.
Today, however, it's easy to find coconut oil in a liquid form (one that's not partially hydrogenated). So we concur with the Times' suggestion to reacquaint ourselves with its "haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor." In moderation, of course.