Here’s What’s Actually in the “Butter” from Movie Theater Popcorn

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(Image credit: Roman Samborskyi)

Hot buttered movie theater popcorn is one of life’s deepest pleasures. It’s pure, greasy nostalgia. When my parents took my sister and I to the movies when we were children, they never, ever let us buy snacks at the theater. Now that I’m an adult, I hit the concession stand every single time, even though I’m well aware of the financial irresponsibility of overindulging in movie theater snacks.

The best part about movie theater popcorn was always the butter. It tasted so rich and indulgent and forbidden. I even had the concession stand fill the popcorn bucket halfway, add butter, and then fill it the rest of the way and add more butter on top of that. That way I’d never have to worry about getting dry, unbuttered popcorn halfway through the movie.

It turns out I should probably have worried less about getting a butter-less piece of popcorn and more about what was in that “butter,” because it turns out it’s not actually butter at all.

According to Extra Crispy’s Stacey Ballis, who has manned a movie theater concession stand and knows exactly how movie theater popcorn is made, movie popcorn is actually made with Flavacol and “Butter Flavored Topping.” Flavacol is the yellow powder that’s tossed over the popcorn while it pops, to make it salty and yellow. Flavacol is apparently just super-fine salt and yellow food coloring. It’s not powdered butter at all. I’m shocked. My whole life, I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that the yellow powder on movie theater popcorn tasted just like butter. But really, it’s just salt and food coloring, with no other flavorings at all.

As for the “Butter Flavored Topping,” well, that’s not butter either.

“Your movie theater butter has no butter in it,” Ballis writes, “but it does have partially hydrogenated soybean oil (aka trans fats), beta carotene (a coloring, makes carrots orange), tertiary Butylhydroquinone or TBHQ (synthetic preservative that keeps the color and texture from changing as the product sits), polydimethylsiloxane (silicone based chemical that prevents foaming), and, wait for it, buttery flavoring. They do not say what exactly makes a buttery flavoring, but they do admit that it isn’t butter. So it is some sort of chemical that mimics butter.”

You can probably believe it’s not butter, because real butter is not usually a bright-yellow oil that comes out of a pump dispenser. And if it were real melted butter, it would start to solidify as the popcorn cools off. Butter Flavored Topping doesn’t solidify; it’s just as slick and yellow on the bottom of the bag as it is when it’s first pumped out at the concession stand. Really, the signs were all there.

The good news is that it is possible to get the movie theater popcorn experience without eating six tablespoons of Butter Flavored Topping. Learn how to make movie theater-style popcorn at home with real butter.