McDonald's vs. Chipotle: Does the Big Mac Win?

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Left to right: bee-side(s)/flickr; yummiec00kies/flickr


Here's a nutritional comparison that might give you pause: a Chipotle burrito versus a Big Mac. Say the pork burrito comes with rice, veggies, cheese, guacamole, and salsa. The Big Mac comes with everything a Big Mac comes with—sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, and sesame seed bun. Juxtapose them and things pan out thusly:

    • 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 offers no iron, vitamins A or C, or calcium. The Big Mac offers 25 percent of your iron and calcium, 2 percent of your vitamin A, and 8 percent of your vitamin C.
    • 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.

(Sources: http://www.chipotlefan.com/index.php?id=nutrition_calculator; http://calorielab.com/restaurants/mcdonalds/big-mac/1/7.)

All things considered, this is a surprising outcome. Granted, it may very well be the case that, could we factor in the preservatives, glutens, gums, and other unhealthy additives, these results would be tempered. Still, given our national health situation—an increasing prevalence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease—neither the Big Mac nor the Chipotle burrito deserves anything close to a nutritional gold star. In fact, for consumers willing to digest the lesser of evils, it appears as if the Big Mac—especially when it comes to sodium and cholesterol—edges out the pork burrito.

What makes this comparison noteworthy is that it grates against Chipotle's carefully cultivated image. Chipotle is a darling, a beacon of hope, a responsible renegade in the morally defunct world of fast food. From its Niman Ranch-raised pork to its "Food with Integrity" campaign to the appearance of its CEO on Oprah (alongside Michael Pollan), Chipotle—which used to be owned by McDonalds—has successfully branded itself as a cool oasis of sustainability in the expanding desert of industrialized food. It's where slow foodies go when it's time to eat fast.

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?

I shouldn't ask this question of Chipotle alone. Take the famous IN-N-OUT Burger. The organization does an impressive of job of tracking its beef from farm to fork, even going to far as to inspect, butcher, and grind its own product. No outsourcing necessary. This rare example of vertical integration has earned the burger chain well-deserved praise. But stack a standard IN-N-OUT burger against a standard McDonald's burger (both with onions, ketchup, and mustard) and the IN-N-OUT loses on every recorded nutritional point. Calories: 310 to 260. Total fat: 10 grams to 9 grams. Sodium: 730 milligrams to 530 milligrams. Cholesterol: 35 milligrams to 30 milligrams. Carbs: 41 grams to 33 grams. And so on. (All figures are from calorielab.com.)

The culinary domain where I really see the rhetoric of sustainability obscuring heroic amounts of fat, cholesterol, and salt is gourmet dining. One can hardly enter an upscale restaurant these days without being lectured about the locally sourced, sustainably raised, and eco-friendly items on the menu.

But how much do these virtuous environmental decisions matter when you savor an appetizer of foie gras, a mere bite which has 85 percent of your daily cholesterol allowance? Does your body care that the chef personally bought the sweetbreads from a local farmer when it's absorbing 30 grams of fat per serving? Or what about that free-range pork tenderloin, a serving of which—although butchered in-house—has 90 percent of your daily cholesterol and 40 percent of your saturated fat? These foods might be produced in a way that's better for the environment or (with the exception of foie gras) better for the animal, but that doesn't mean that, eaten with any sort of regularity, they're not going to make your next physical a nightmare.

This tendency toward green-sanctioned gluttony was on vivid display in Dana Goodyear's recent piece in the New Yorker. A gushing paean to the trendy L.A. restaurant Animal, the article went wobbly over the fact that the proprietors employed everything but the squeal—treating headcheese, innards, and brains with the same respect chefs normally reserve for chops and loins. Can you imagine what would happen if McDonald's bragged that it was using "everything but the moo"? Or, what if an inspiring documentary filmmaker with gonzo tendencies decided to eat every meal at Animal for a month? In highlighting the fact that McDonald's is a nutritional cesspool, are we letting restaurants that take a vow of sustainability—and, in many cases, do the right thing environmentally—off the hook?

The Food Movement—and, yes, it is now officially a "Movement"—has dutifully touted the importance of eating "real food." It has urged us to avoid food that requires excessive processing, preservatives, and supplements. This is all well and good. But before we start celebrating every move toward the sustainable production of "real food," we mustn't allow the well-marketed virtues of production to hide the rarely mentioned dangers of consumption.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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