Fresh Mex: Not Always Healthy Mex
'Food Police' Bust Chipotle for Calorie Coverup
Chipotle, the fast-growing, McDonald's- affiliated fresh-Mex chain, doesn't disclose the calorie or saturated fat content of its burritos. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)--the "food police" that blew the whistle on the fat content of popular Italian, Chinese, and fast-food restaurant fare--sent some of Chipotle's most popular burritos to an independent laboratory for analysis. Those results--as well as nutrition numbers provided by Chipotle's competition--are exposed in the October issue of CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.
First of all, says CSPI, fresh Mex-restaurants offer a lot of things fast food restaurants don't. Fresh veggies, grilled seafood and chicken, salsas, and beans abound. It's certainly possible to get a healthful meal relatively low in saturated fat and high in dietary fiber. But some menu items can easily top 1,000 calories--and just about everything has too much salt. That's more calories than the vast majority of sandwiches or fast-food burgers, according to CSPI.
"Fresh Mex chains cultivate an aura of healthfulness, and sometimes it's deserved," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But because Chipotle doesn't reveal calories or other nutrition information, most people wouldn't have a clue that a Vegetarian Burrito is the equivalent of an overstuffed corned beef sandwich--plus 350 calories. Chipotle's Carnitas Burrito is like an artillery shell filled with a day's worth of saturated fat and sodium."
Among CSPI's findings:
- Chipotle's Chicken Burrito (with black beans, rice, cheese, and salsa) weighs in at nearly 1,000 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat.
- Chipotle's Vegetarian Burrito (with black beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, and salsa) weighs over a pound and provides 1,120 calories and three-quarters of a day's worth of saturated fat (14 grams).
- Chipotle's Barbacoa Burrito (with shredded beef, pinto beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa) hits nearly 1,300 calories and three-quarters of a day's worth of saturated fat. That's the equivalent of a Quarter Pounder, a large order of fries, and a large Coke.
- Chipotle's Chicken Burrito Bols--burritos without the 340-calorie flour tortillas--are CSPI's only recommended "Better Bites" at Chipotle. A Bol with chicken, black beans, lettuce, and salsa, has just 430 calories and four grams of saturated fat. Rice instead of lettuce adds about 200 calories.
If you want a Chipotle Burrito and not a Bowl, CSPI advises consumers holding the cheese and sour cream. That can save 200 calories and a half a day's worth of saturated fat. We estimate that skipping the rice could save 200 calories more. And most Chipotle Burritos are big enough for two meals: Just ask your server to wrap each half separately.
Baja Fresh, a Wendy's-owned chain, has much more than burritos. Its chicken, cheese, or steak Quesadillas average 1,230 calories and have a nearly two days' worth of artery-clogging saturated fat. That's like having three Quarter Pounders with another half-day's sat fat thrown in, according to CSPI. Baja's Nachos are even worse. With a day's worth of calories (2,000) and sodium (2,890) with two days' worth (39 grams) of saturated fat, the average order of nachos (made with steak, chicken, or just cheese) is worse than four Quarter Pounders.
Some Baja Fresh dishes CSPI recommends include:
- Baja's Chicken or Seafood Ensaladas. These generous salads, topped with chicken or seafood, have about 300 calories and no more than four grams of saturated fat.
- One Baja Style Taco with chicken, steak, or seafood has around 200 calories and a gram or two of saturated fat to make two equal a reasonable lunch.
- Baja's Bare Burrito, made with chicken, beans, rice, vegetables, salsa, and dressing has no tortilla and is served in a bowl. The Vegetarian Bare Burrito has cheese and lettuce instead of chicken. Both fall in the 600-calorie range.
- Baja's Chicken Fajitas (without sour cream or guacamole) have around 1,100 calories--certainly not diet food--but only two to five grams of saturated fat.
The Nutrition Action Healthletter article also evaluates menu items at two smaller, regional chains, Rubio's and La Salsa. CSPI praises Rubio's HealthMex menu, which has burritos, tacos, and a platter lower in calories and saturated fat than similar menu items at nearly any chain. La Salsa's Mexico City Tacos and Baja Style Shrimp Tacos won Better Bite ratings. But CSPI only recommends La Salsa's 1,480-calorie El Champion burrito for those with a champion cardiac surgeon.
"You get a lot of good things at a fresh-Mex joint that you won't find under the golden arches," Jacobson said. "But it's a shame Chipotle and its ilk can't show more restraint with the fat, salt, and portion sizes--especially since none of these chains posts calorie information on menu boards."
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).