Friday, April 20, 2012

Deleted Scene from Marcus Samuelsson

This is an article that I wrote for Marcus's blog, but because it was deemed too "brand-specific," it was not published.  Frankly, I'm a little too proud of it, so instead of letting it wither in a cyber recycle bin, I'll publish it here.  Consider it "bonus material!"

Do You, or Can You, Count Calories?

Credit: Ben Popken
Since 2006, all fast food menu items sold in the five boroughs of New York City have been required to list their respective caloric contents.  This initiative has proven to be popular, as it has been adopted by many other states and cities throughout the United States.  The purpose--to educate patrons on relative nutrition among food choices--is admirable, but the results have been mixed.  Some menus, while legally displaying all necessary calorie counts to comply with the law, have proven to be inadequate in curbing obesity.  It is clear that more action is needed, including, but not limited to, making calorie counts easier to tabulate, launching parallel advertising campaigns, and educating diners outside of the restaurants.

Although Chipotle's practices have yielded national acclaim, its menus, like many in New York City, leave certain nutritional questions unanswered.  As an occasional Chipotle customer, I can confirm that even though I do not actively seek low-calorie meals, I will attempt to estimate how many calories are in my burrito.  This task is, in my opinion, much harder than is necessary.  As a result, this unfortunate trend in caloric guess work makes it nearly impossible to make well-educated nutritional decisions, no matter how noble the parties' intentions may be.

Looking at the menu, one can see that the burrito ranges from 450 to 930 calories.  Clearly, these variations manifest themselves in the choice of filling, whether vegetarian, chicken, steak, carnitas (Chipotle's shredded pork), or barbacoa (shredded beef, using the same recipe and preparation as the carnitas).  In my opinion, there should be more information with respect to how many calories are associated with each protein.  As it currently stands, I have no insight as to which beef is "healthier;" I rarely order the steak filling because I prefer the taste and texture of barbacoa, but I would certainly use improved nutritional information to my advantage.

Meanwhile, I find it hard to believe that the black beans (which are vegetarian) and the pinto beans (which are bacon-flavored) are actually equivalent in caloric value.  Similarly, it is implausible that three "soft" flour taco tortillas have the same number of calories as three crispy taco shells.  Yet Chipotle's menu only mentions a range of caloric values for all taco iterations.  It is clear that many concerned dieters would be forced to do further research on their meals, thereby defeating the original purpose of posting the caloric information on the wall-mounted menu.

As Chipotle's menu currently informs its customers, there is certainly a caloric difference among the burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads.  No matter how many more calories one flour tortilla, or three crispy taco shells, may have than a cardboard dish, there are many important nutritional questions that the menu fails to answer.  If Chipotle were to rewrite its menus to clarify these ambiguities, then, hopefully, more restaurants would follow suit.  Meanwhile, Chipotle could maintain its reputation as a trail blazing, unconventional, and "anti-fast food" fast food establishment, without changing any recipes.  It is my hope that all food menus will become more diet-friendly by more clearly disclosing necessary nutritional information.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons by Ben Popken.

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