This is a guest blog post by Mariana Cotlear.
Is a McDonald’s Big Mac better for you than a Chipotle Burrito? So claims James McWilliams in a recent article in The Atlantic.
His straight nutritional comparison of the above mentioned menu items leads him to this conclusion: Despite Chipotle’s sustainable and natural image, they are actually selling food that is worse than what we find in the most vilified of fast food chains. What’s more, he continues, this calls into question the credibility of all food movements (sustainable/local/organic) which also claim to be better for our health. In fact, the virtuous origins of certain victuals are a veil: they are actually just shielding foods that are really bad for you. Foods that are “attacking” your body, in fact!
How an organization known for promoting responsible food choices can get away with serving a signature meal that exceeds our daily sodium allowance—while the avatar of industrial food actually offers a counterpart that’s not quite as bad for you—is a situation that makes me wonder: could the rhetoric of food sustainability be distracting us a darker reality? Put differently, does Chipotle’s admirable decisions to support small farms when feasible, source all its pork locally from welfare-approved operations, and buy half of its beef hormone-free exonerate their barbell of a burrito from attacking our bodies with obscene levels of cholesterol, saturated fat, and salt?
Given McWilliam’s freely incendiary prose, it’s unsurprising that his article elicits a strong reaction from those of us who don’t think that a meal that contains real, recognizable food items, (including a good deal of fresh vegetables, legumes, and meat that is sustainably produced) is comparable to the industrial creation that is the Big Mac, which, when broken down, looks a lot like the Twinkie. McWilliams’ first mistake is the same as that of the nutritionists: He evaluates the nutritional merits of these foods based on their “stats” alone rather than on the big picture.
But I actually do find the premise of this article interesting, so I’ll put my visceral reaction aside in order to examine some of his other methodological flaws.
McWilliams’ verdict (that the Big Mac is better for you than the burrito) is based on the following nutritional comparison:
• The burrito has 31 grams of fat, 11 grams of which are saturated. The Big Mac has 30 grams of fat, 10 of which are saturated (and 1.5 of which are trans-fat).
• The burrito has 105 milligrams of cholesterol; the Big Mac has 80 milligrams.
• The burrito has 2600 mg of sodium (108 percent of your daily allowance!); the Big Mac has 1010 mg (47 percent).
• The burrito has 102 grams of carbs; the Big Mac has 47 grams.
A couple of factors lean in the burrito’s direction:
• The burrito has 54 grams of protein while the Big Mac has 25 grams.
• The burrito totally flushes the Big Mac when it comes to fiber: 68 percent of a person’s recommended daily allowance to 12 percent.
But does it even make sense to compare a McDonalds’ Big Mac and a Chipotle burrito, even solely on their stats? I don’t think so.
For starters, while a Chipotle burrito is a meal in and of itself, a Big Mac isn’t. A Chipotle burrito is over three times the size of a BigMac. (The burrito weighs 25.6 oz, compared to the burger’s 7.6 oz.) Obviously, the burrito is a lot more food. So much so that I rarely find a dining partner that finishes a whole burrito in one sitting. It’s very common to cut the thing in half and make two meals out of it (I do this myself). So there’s a logical problem with this comparison: people aren’t eating the entire burrito at once.
The Big Mac, on the other hand, is unlikely to fill you up on its own. You’ll eat the whole burger while munching on some large fries and sipping on a large soda. And maybe you’ll grab a McFlurry or an Apple Pie to wash it down.
Secondly, Chipotle allows customers to completely customize its offering of burrito fillings in order to suit their tastes and preferences. The burrito that McWilliams chose to examine was the “loaded” version: carnitas (pork) with rice, veggies, cheese, guacamole, and salsa.
But there are plenty of ways to make your Chipotle meal much healthier than that. A burrito bol, for example (which omits the flour tortilla wrap), made up of the carnitas, rice, black beans, grilled peppers and onions, corn salsa, tomato salsa, cheese, and extra lettuce is 665 calories, with 23 grams of fat. That’s pretty respectable for a meal.
If you go the vegetarian route and also leave off the cheese (as I usually do), the same burrito bol is only 375 calories with 6 grams of fat. This dish still contains rice, black beans, grilled peppers and onions, corn and tomato salsa and lettuce. Plenty of proteins and grains to make up a whole, filling meal, and lots and lots of vegetables.
This is real food. This is food that doesn’t make you feel sick after eating it. This is food that actually fills you up and doesn’t produce a sugar spike which will make you crave more in a few hours. I don’t think there’s any way you can say the same for the BigMac.
Then there’s the issue of portion size. The Chipotle burrito IS huge. And, though some people leave theirs unfinished (or make more than one meal out of it), plenty are eating it all in one sitting. For most of us, that’s too much food — and yes, that’s something that contributes to our collective expanding waistlines. Eating too much of anything (even when that anything is “healthy”) will lead to weight gain. And excessive portion sizes are a big problem in most restaurants (yes, even the local and sustainable ones). That’s a difficult issue to address and one that goes beyond the scope of this post.
And yet: This may get me into trouble, but if you are going to over eat, I’d rather you have one thousand calories of real food than one thousand calories of processed food. So in the end, I’d say that Chipotle is still offering us a better choice than McDonalds.
One last point, which I didn’t realize but find particularly illuminating: Pound-for-pound, a Chipotle burrito is actually cheaper. Commenter revchico points out that while the Big Mac is 45 cents per ounce ($3.39), the burrito costs 30 cents per ounce ($7.75). And that burrito’s price includes $1.65 extra charge for the guacamole — without guac it is an even better value. This is really promising given the (usually correct) perception that junk food is cheaper than real, “healthy” food.
I get that news outlets like the Atlantic like to offer contrarian viewpoints. I usually love to read them. But in this case, McWilliams’ argument uses some pretty misleading logic simply to make an incendiary point, which discredits an organization that I think is actually doing pretty well, nutritionally-speaking, compared to its competitors.
Are there unhealthy options available at Chipotle? Yes. Are there unhealthy options at sustainable, locally-run restaurants? Yes, of course. But to say that this “proves” that they are no better than those companies that are working with artificial and industrially produced “food” is both disingenuous and a textbook example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I say to both James McWilliams and to the Atlantic: Come on, guys! You can do better than that. Let’s not add to the overly abundant misinformation about food. People are confused enough about what to eat as it is.
Note: For the Chipotle calorie counts, I used the nutrition calculator at chipotlefan.com, the same source that McWilliams used for his article.
Mariana Cotlear is a foodie and public health advocate.
She hopes to change the nutritional landscape in the U.S. and beyond via public policy and communications campaigns to influence the way people eat and encourage them to establish healthier relationships with food. She blogs about eating, cooking, and food policy issues at her blog Epicuriosa.