Burrito Nutrition: An Investigation
Burrito nutrition. Sausage making. Some food topics are better left unexplored.
And let’s be honest, even if I told you, entirely hypothetically, that a burrito with all the best fixin’s like guacamole and sour cream would provide you with your entire daily recommended allowance for fat, that wouldn’t get you to order lentil soup for lunch instead, right? Right. But is that even the case? And is there possibly some way to justify your decision to wait an hour for a burrito during lunch rush? We’re about to find out.
Nobody has ever claimed burritos are low fat. The meat, the cheese, the sour cream, hell, even the tortilla — traditionally made with lard mixed into a flour dough — is loaded with the stuff.
But there's fat and then there's unsaturated fat, the so-called "good" kind. On a molecular level, fats are a biological necessity. Our cells break them down into lipids, which are essential components of the cell wall, help cells communicate with each other, and store energy.
Avocados, the ubiquitous burrito add-on, are packed with these unsaturated fats and beef offers a pretty good ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats, at least, compared to dairy.
Since we all need unsaturated fats and we all need burritos, could those needs be combined and satisfied all at once? With the help of a nutrition info database and a kitchen scale, we decided to find out.
We chose burritos from three broad categories: a national chain, a California-style sit down restaurant, and a more street-food style approach from a Mexican bodega. All were beef, to help control that variable, although, as you’ll see, the cut of meat makes a difference the amount of fat content.
To find out the nutritional value we weighed out each ingredient on a kitchen scale and used an internet database providing nutrient breakdowns by weight. Where necessary, some ingredients were used as a proxy, like diced tomatoes for pico de gallo, especially for the vegetables, which have almost negligible fat content.
Entrant one: Chipotle Barbacoa
Good ol’ Chipotle. Say what you will about its food scares or stock price, the company is very transparent about its nutritional information, which is all available online. I practically could have done the calculation from my laptop, but where’s the fun in that?
We went with their barbacoa, a braised beef with chipotle (naturally) sauce. Chipotle wouldn’t disclose the cut they use for this burrito; however, Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has a barbacoa clone recipe that calls for chuck-eye steak, for which there is data. Good enough for him, good enough for us.
Total fat 65 g
Total unsaturated fat 25 g
Calories from unsaturated fat 225 Calories
Unsaturated fat per unit weight 31 per kg of burrito or 14 g per pound
Percent daily value 68 percent of all fat, 98 percent of unsaturated fat
Entrant two: Calexico Carne Asada
Calexico, a chain sit-down and takeout eatery with locations in New York and Detroit, started as a food truck and is named for a California border town. Their long and lean burrito packs carne asada made with hanger steak, a tender cut near the skirt steak that’s kind of a tweener in terms of fat content.
"I find it to be on the lean side, although it does have great fat marbling in Prime grade,” says Pat LaFrieda of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, a fourth-generation butcher who supplies beef to many of New York’s top restaurants. Given that it’s a relatively rare steak to find, there isn’t any explicit nutritional information on it, but LaFrieda said it had approximately one-sixth less fat than the fattiest skirt steaks, so that’s what we used to calculate our values. Also, the standard burrito comes doused in an avocado crema, but you can order guac on top of that, so naturally we did.
Total fat 48.3 g
Total unsaturated fat 26.9 g
Calories from unsaturated fat 243 Calories
Unsaturated fat per unit weight 39 g per kg of burrito, or 18 g per pound of burrito
Percent daily value 41 percent of total fat, 60 percent of unsaturated fat
Entrant three: Reyes Deli Cecina
Reyes Deli, a Mexican bodega in Brooklyn that’s not quite a best-kept secret, is as big on flavor as they are on value. That’s especially true for their cecina — thin, salty slices of top round with the beefy intensity of jerky, but, you know, not dry and stringy. Frankly, cecina is probably best deployed in a taco and was overwhelming as a burrito, but for the purposes of this investigation it helped me avoid getting carne asada everywhere.
Total fat 51.3 g
Total unsaturated fat 30.5 g
Calories from unsaturated fat 275 Calories
Unsaturated fat per unit weight 16 g/ pound or 30 g per kg
Percent daily value 45 percent of all fat or 75 percent of unsaturated fat.
When it comes to adding in unsaturated fat, the only real difference maker seems to be avocado. Chipotle’s giant dollops of sour cream brings a lot, too, but it’s much outweighed by the saturated fat therein. As expected, there’s no sugar coating it: a burrito from just about anywhere brings you real close to your recommended daily allowance for total, saturated, and unsaturated fats. To help your brain rest easy at the thought of all that fat, you could cut out the dairy and ask for extra guacamole. Or, you could just throw back a couple Pacificos first.