During my bulkiest days walking the earth’s surface, I was a four-burrito-per-week type of a guy. For my money — which was specifically $6.99 every afternoon at Pancheros Mexican Grill for several months — few culinary comforts could match the satisfaction of brown rice, black beans and seasoned chicken wrapped in a freshly formed tortilla.
It just so happens that my then girlfriend — now wife — would ride the bus into Downtown Detroit from Chicago during that exact same era, and her fresh-off-the-bus meal of choice (which should have been a Coney Dog or Detroit-style pizza), consisted of a gut-busting sum of tacos from Taco Bell.
Obviously, neither of our choices were ideal from a nutritional standpoint. But when push comes to shove, is a burrito worse for you than a taco, is it the other way around or is it just too close to call?
This is important to know! Which one is it?
Since I must establish some sort of ground rules to keep this from becoming a free-for-all, I’m going to loosely apply the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of both a burrito and a taco. From there, I’m going to impose the minimalist standards of those definitions upon the basic burritos and tacos served at popular establishments that offer both items to see if we can reach a definitive conclusion. Otherwise, my burrito bias might kick in, and I’ll be comparing the healthiest burritos on earth to taco cupcakes simply to build the most pliable of straw men to knock aside.
Let’s start with one of the fast-food Mexican brands that Americans are most familiar with — Chipotle Mexican Grill, which offers both burritos and tacos on its menu. I’ll be taking into account that the standard serving of the tacos is much smaller, while also noting that Chipotle offers up three tacos as an equivalent mealtime offering to its burritos. Also, since Chipotle’s menu allows me to build these munchables myself, I’ll be piling on the ingredients that I consider essential to my own basic understanding of what makes these items what they are.
For the record, I crafted the burrito to include the standard tortilla wrap, along with grilled chicken, brown rice, tomato salsa and cheese. For a comparable enough taco, I went with grilled chicken, the soft flour tortilla shell, cheese and romaine lettuce. In essence, I produced the closest thing I could to a standard Taco Bell Chicken Soft Taco using Chipotle’s ingredients.
The burrito is 400 more calories than three tacos?! This looks really bad for the burrito!
True, but the reality is that you can tinker with the ingredients of each item all you like to shape their interiors and rig the scoring; the real difference is felt within the beast of a tortilla wrap that’s essential to the burrito, and that’s designed to fully encase and engulf the ingredients within it. If we think of three tacos as being the equivalent to a single burrito the way Chipotle’s management team seems to, the burrito contains 33 percent more tortilla wrapping than all three of the tacos combined. This amounts to the burrito’s tortilla contributing 80 more calories, 11 more grams of carbohydrates and 120 more milligrams of sodium than all three of the soft taco shells.
Just to see if this pattern pans out elsewhere, let’s travel over to Qdoba to see how things shake out on the nutrition chart.
Again, you can tinker with the innards of the food items all you like, but when you get right down to a comparison between the tortilla of the taco and the wrapping of the burrito, the difference is 24 grams to 102 grams, or a greater than four-to-one ratio of grams, and a similar caloric differential of 70 to 300. So again, you’d have to eat four of the allotted tacos in a Qdoba serving to get within hailing distance of the macronutrients supplied by the wrappings alone.
So the burrito is worse?! I’m stunned.
“Worse” is a strong word. The burrito is definitely the more likely contender to set you back if you need to keep your calories down, and the fact that its base tends to include rice won’t help you on that front either. The good news is, if you’re the type for whom any sort of tortilla enclosure spells dietary doom, most of these places will still be happy to sell you a salad — or basically the same thing as the burrito just sans tortilla.