Nutrition Action Healthletter
July/August 1994 — U.S. Edition

Mexican Food: Oile`

Rice, beans, and tortillas. What a foundation for a healthy cuisine.

So why were we scratching our cabezas as we looked at the results of our laboratory test of Mexican restaurant food?

  • An order of Beef & Cheese Nachos with as much fat as ten glazed doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts.

  • A Chicken Burrito dinner with 1 day's worth of sodium.

  • A Chile Relleno dinner with as much saturated fat as 27 slices of bacon!
Only one of the dishes we tested - chicken fajitas - was decent enough to recommend ... if you order it without the beans, sour cream, and guacamole. That was the good news. The sad part was that, unlike Chinese or Italian restaurant food, it's tough to make Mexican better.

If your favorite Mexican restaurant meal is something like grilled fish or chicken with tomatillo sauce, or a jicama salad with a light vinaigrette, or if you live in Portland or Seattle near a Macheezmo Mouse outlet (see "Say Macheezmo"), then you can stop reading right here.

That'll save us the stamps to answer all the letters from people complaining that we intentionally picked "bad" Mexican food to test. Not true.

We chose a selection of the most popular dishes served at some of the largest mid-priced, non-fast-food chains - places like Chi-Chi's, El Torito, and El Chico as well as smaller chains and independents.

True. There are Mexican restaurants that serve creative low-fat, (maybe) low-sodium food. But that's not where most of us eat. Don't blame us. That's just the way the burrito bounces.

And don't blame the Mexicans. For all we know, their cuisine is a lot healthier than what our restaurants serve.

Spilling The Beans

In theory, at least, you'd expect rice and beans to do for Mexican what rice does for Chinese and pasta does for Italian - cut the fat and sodium. By loading up on steamed rice or pasta and only eating half of whatever comes with it (you can take the rest home for another meal), you get far less fat and salt.

No luck with Mexican. We found 800+ milligrams of sodium in a typical restaurant serving of Mexican rice (3/4 Cup). That's about a third of your daily maximum. The beans have almost as much.

And unlike Old El Paso and other canned low-fat refried beans you can buy at the supermarket, most restaurants take high-fiber, cooked pinto beans and mix them with lots of fat - sometimes lard, bacon, or cheese. No wonder a 3/4-cup serving dumps a third of a day's worth of saturated fat into your poor arteries. Add rice and beans to any Mexican entree and you'll just be compounding the problem.

A few restaurants (El Torito and Chevys, for example) also offer non-refried beans. Get 'em if you can. They might be better.

Guac Around The Clock

Most restaurants serve rice and beans, sour cream, and guacamole (mashed avocado and tomato) with many of their main dishes.

If you ate those "sides" and nothing else, no tacos or enchiladas or burritos or chimichangas, we estimate that you'd end up with almost two-thirds of a day's total fat, and three-quarters of a day's sat fat and sodium.

So hold the side orders. Instead, don't let the waiter take away the bowl of salsa that you (of course) didn't dunk your greasy, deep-fried tortilla chips in. Put a tablespoon of it over your dinner. You'll add flavor with no fat and (we hope) not too much sodium. (We didn't analyze salsa, but most market brands have 40 mg to 180 mg per tablespoon). You can do the same with the pico de gallo (tomatoes and onions with hot peppers) that comes free with many dishes. If it doesn't, ask for some.

Tortilla Terror

It's not just the side dishes that make the most popular Mexican restaurant food so hard to swallow. The enchiladas, chimichangas, quesadillas, etc., all do their part.

Most consist of a corn or white-flour tortilla stuffed with some combination of rice, beans, cheese, and beef or chicken. For variety, sometimes the tortillas are softened in oil (enchiladas). Sometimes they're deep-fried (crispy tacos or taco salads). And sometimes the shell plus the filling ends up in boiling oil (chimichangas).

Only the fajitas, burritos, quesadillas, and soft tacos escape with their skins unscathed. And the best - by far - are the fajitas . . . at least those of the chicken (and probably shrimp and vegetable) variety. There's not much you can do to ruin strips of marinated boneless chicken breast sauteed with onions and green peppers (other than loading them with salt, that is).

Chicken fajitas are the only main dish we looked at that had less than 30 percent of calories from fat, not to mention just five percent of calories from saturated fat. You'd be hard pressed to find a (nonsodium) guideline they wouldn't meet.

Mexican vs. Italian & Cheese

Can't decide between the Szechwan Palace, the Spaghetti Garden, and El Taco Rancho? Don't stop at the ranch.

Yes, all three cuisines are minefields for hidden fat and sodium. And yes, Fettuccine Alfredo is in a class of its own. But at least Italian and Chinese offer a number of items like spaghetti or stir-fried shrimp or vegetables that use up only about half a day's fat. And Chinese and spaghetti dishes rarely exceed half a day's saturated fat. What's more, an extra order of steamed rice or a side of spaghetti can dilute the fat and salt further, by turning one meal into two or three.

In contrast, none of the Mexican platters we looked at used up less than half a day's fat or sat fat. Most blew your whole day's quota (the beans, sour cream, and guacamole saw to that).

Want to salvage half a day's fat for the rest of your meals? You might do better with grilled chicken or fish in a noncream sauce. But as far as the popular dishes we tested, get the chicken fajitas, chicken tacos (just two), or a chicken burrito. And, whatever you order, get it a la carte if you can. That means skip the beans, guacamole, sour cream, and (sorry) tortilla chips.

How We Got Our Numbers

We bought take-out portions of 15 popular appetizers and main dishes at 19 mid-priced Mexican restaurants (including the nation's two biggest chains) in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. We then made a "composite" out of nine samples of each dish (equal portions of nine restaurants' chicken tacos, for example, were mixed together), and shipped them to an independent laboratory to be tested for calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

We obtained our numbers for the combination platters by adding together the lab results for their a la carte components. (We purchased the combos first, to make sure that they were equal to the sum of their a la carte parts.) For guacamole, we used the numbers from a food service provider.

Say Macheezmo

Brown rice, no-fat black beans, lower-fat cheese, whole wheat tortillas, marinated vegetables, steamed broccoli, sour cream blended with non-fat yogurt.

Our wish list for healthy Mexican food turns out to be the menu at Macheezmo Mouse, a prosperous 15-chain fast food operation in Seattle and Portland.

According to Macheezmo, only two of the 18 main dishes on its menu get more than 25 percent of their calories from fat. Six get 15 percent or less. And nothing contains more than a quarter of your daily fat quota. Only two items go over 1,000 mg of sodium.

What's the key? Fewer meat and more chicken dishes, reduced-fat cheese and sour cream, lots of rice and beans, abundant veggies, and a nice selection of salads with lowfat dressing. Oh yeah. The most expensive dinner on the menu costs $6.75.

Are you listening Chi-Chi's? El Torito? Chevys?

Juliann Goldman coordinated the food testing. Karen Orville, Anne Didato, Michelle Werkstell, and Maxine Anderson helped compile the information for this article. Gary Beecher and Joanne Holden of the U.S Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Composition Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, provided invaluable technical advice, as well as the use of their lab.

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