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."
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.
Healthier Options Available
Experts say there are healthier options available at the major fresh-Mex fast food chains, but you have to know where to look and how to order to avoid hidden calories.
CSPI's picks include:
- Chipotle's Chicken Burrito Bols. A burrito with chicken, black beans, lettuce, and salsa but without the 340-calorie flour tortilla has just 430 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat.
- Baja's Chicken or Seafood Ensaladas. These salads, topped with chicken or seafood, have about 300 calories and no more than 4 grams of saturated fat.
- One Baja Style Taco. Made with chicken, steak, or seafood, these tacos have nearly 200 calories, and the 1 to 2 grams of saturated fat make two of them a reasonable lunch option.
- Baja's Bare Burrito. Made with chicken, beans, rice, vegetables, salsa, and dressing. It has no tortilla and is served in a bowl. The Vegetarian Bare Burrito has cheese and lettuce instead of chicken. Both have about 600 calories.
Tips for cutting calories and fat when ordering at fresh-Mex establishments include:
- Order lettuce instead of rice in burritos or salads, this shaves about 200 calories.
- Hold the cheese and sour cream and cut about 200 calories and a half day's worth of saturated fat.
- Most Tex-Mex style burritos are usually big enough to feed two people, so ask your server to wrap each half separately.