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Football-Sized Burritos at Fast-Food Mexican Restaurants Pack Caloric Punch

Sept. 30, 2003 -- With slogans that tout how their oversized burritos are so big that they beep when they back up, perhaps the popular "fresh-Mex" fast-food chains should have seen the food police salivating.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the group that blew the whistle on the fat content of movie theater popcorn, Chinese food, and other fast-food restaurant fare, has now set its sights on the mushrooming Tex-Mex and fresh-Mex food chains, such as Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Rubio's, and La Salsa.

The group says the fast-growing McDonald's affiliated chain Chipotle doesn't disclose the fat or calorie content of its burritos. But independent laboratory analysis shows many of the massive burritos weigh in at more than 1,000 calories and 12 grams of fat. That's more calories than two Quarter Pounders and much more than in most sandwich offerings at other fast-food chains.

"Fresh-Mex chains cultivate an aura of healthfulness, and sometimes it's deserved," says CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, in a news release.

"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," says Jacobson. "Chipotle's Carnitas Burrito is like an artillery shell filled with a day's worth of saturated fat and sodium."

Burrito Overload

Baja Fresh, which is owned by Wendy's, was also cited by the food police for its chicken, cheese, or steak quesadillas that average 1,230 calories and have a nearly two days' worth of artery-clogging saturated fat.

Baja's nachos were an even worse offender. The average order made with steak, chicken, or just cheese packed a day's worth of calories (2,000) and sodium (2,890 milligrams) along with two days' worth of saturated fat (39 grams).

"You get a lot of good things at a fresh-Mex joint that you won't find under the golden arches," says Jacobson. "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."

The CSPI also evaluated two smaller, regional chains, Rubio's and La Salsa. The group praised Rubio's HealthMex menu, which has items lower in fat and calories than similar items at other chains.

Researchers also recommended La Salsa's Mexico City Tacos and Baja Style Shrimp Tacos as "better bite" options, but their 1,480 calories El Champion burrito was only advised for those with a champion cardiac surgeon.

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