The Surprise Ending of ‘Dune,’ the Popcorn Bucket

The Surprise Ending of ‘Dune,’ the Popcorn Bucket

In the “Dune” movies, a gigantic sandworm can rise from the desert and devour soldiers and military vehicles in its gaping maw. In real life, humans watching movies devour popcorn. These two ideas have been combined to spawn the “Dune” popcorn bucket, a sandworm-shaped tub that is having a cultural moment. The bucket arrives on the heels of other recent popcorn collectibles, like the 16-inch Barbie Corvette snack holder. But is there more to these vessels than meets the eye?

Lindsay Moyer thinks about popcorn. She is the senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group focused on food systems and healthy eating. She sat down with The New York Times to discuss what she sees when she considers “Dune: The Popcorn Bucket.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you seen the “Dune” popcorn bucket?

I’ve seen photos. I haven’t seen it in real life.

First impressions?

It looks pretty wild. It looks like it would actually slow you down in terms of eating. It doesn’t seem ideally designed to serve yourself popcorn out of.

Because it is shaped like a worm’s mouth?

Yeah, because of all the stuff sticking out of it.

Do you like popcorn?

Yes, and I’ve certainly spent time looking at movie theater popcorn, nutrition information and menus. What I see through that lens is there’s an inordinately large bucket, and the serving is unreal.

Is that bad?

Popcorn itself is a healthy food, whole grain. It’s high in volume and, before you add oil, pretty low in calories.

A filling snack.

But a lot of people don’t realize that popcorn like the kind you get at a movie theater, in addition to the huge size of the bucket, it’s popped in oil. Then, if you add that buttery topping, you’re usually adding more oil on top of that.

How big is the “Dune” bucket?

Good question. I mean, there are a lot of unknowns here. Even though I spend so much of my time professionally looking at menus and nutrition facts, popcorn is often the most complicated in terms of the information that the movie chains make available.

If you go to a movie theater, calories are listed on the menu. But there are some exemptions to that menu-labeling law. One of them covers limited-time options that are on the menu for less than 60 days.

An AMC spokesman told me that the “Dune” bucket, which sells for $24.99, is a “little smaller” than the 130-ounce large. (The bucket, which comes without popcorn in it, “is sold with a separate large popcorn for the guest to enjoy, in case they do not want to eat popcorn out of their vessel,” he added in an email.) And there are free refills. What did you discover?

My colleague and I called some AMC locations this morning, and they all told us that the “Dune” bucket is like getting a large popcorn there, but that it varies by location. We talked to their employees and asked them how many calories are listed on the menu, and a large has 980 calories. My understanding is that would be before you added any buttery topping yourself, if you choose to add it.

Ah, so there’s a surprise ending to the popcorn narrative.

Yes. There are a couple of surprises. At AMC, you’re getting a large, which is around 980 calories before you add anything to it. Then there’s the question of if you’re getting it popped in canola oil or coconut oil — that’s not clear. The coconut oil is higher in saturated fats. Then, are you getting butter, or buttery topping that is not actually butter?

Wait, the buttery topping is not butter?

In most cases at movie theaters, the buttery topping contains no butter. When I called my local AMC movie theater, the employee there was very nice. He listed the ingredients in their buttery topping for me: highly refined soybean oil, natural and artificial buttery flavor and beta carotene, which can be added for color or vitamin A content. He also was able to read me the nutrition facts for their buttery topping off the package. One tablespoon has 120 calories.

In past articles that our organization has done on movie theater popcorn over the years, we’ve estimated that you might add two tablespoons to a large bucket. But for some people it could be more; it all depends how many pumps you give it.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy themselves. I just want people to know what they’re getting.

What does that add up to, by the end?

If you added two tablespoons, you would be looking at about 1,220 calories. That’s like eating the calories of two Big Macs; a Big Mac is about 600 calories.

But a movie is pretty long, right?

Yeah, you might need a soda and some candy too.