A typical serving of beef chimichangas, chile rellenos or other popular menu items at Mexican restaurants exceeds the federal government's recommended daily limit of fat, saturated fat and sodium, according to a study released Monday by a Washington-based nutritional advocacy group.
The survey of restaurant chains and independent diners by the Center for Science in the Public Interest contends that Mexican restaurants have been lax in offering healthier alternatives to their customers.
In recent months, the group has issued similar killjoy reports detailing the dangers of food in Chinese and Italian restaurants as well as movie theater popcorn. But results from the Mexican food survey make kung pao chicken and lasagna "look good," the study said.
The study drew immediate fire from the restaurant industry, which charged that the sampling technique was flawed.
Of 12 commonly ordered dishes, only one--chicken fajitas--derives less than 30% of its total calories from fat, the group said. In comparison, a Szechwan shrimp dish derives about 18%, while a plate of spaghetti with clam sauce derives 23%.
The study found many Mexican offerings are filled with artery-clogging fat. Eating two chile rellenos with beans and rice, the study said, is equivalent to eating a quarter-pound stick of butter, which contains 92 grams of fat. An average restaurant beef chimichanga with beans, rice, sour cream and guacamole contains 86 grams of fat, while a Big Mac-and-fries lunch contains 48 grams, according to the group's data.
Even such side dishes as guacamole or rice and beans can deliver two-thirds of the recommended daily fat allowance, the study said.
"To those of us who've enjoyed Mexican foods, these results are pretty depressing," said Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director.
And unlike Chinese or Italian restaurants, most Mexican eateries offer almost nada for health-conscious consumers, Jacobson said.
"Epidemiologically, Hispanics have a higher incidence of heart disease than Chinese and Italians," said Dr. Howard Hodis of USC. "But it's a big leap forward" from restaurant food to heart disease, he added.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Olympic boxing champion Paul Gonzalez said in Los Angeles Monday, breaking into a broad grin as he pulled a nacho--dripping with cheese--from a large platter at La Parrilla restaurant on Cesar Chavez Blvd. on the city's eastside.
And for Gonzalez, who won a Gold Medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Mexican food definitely "ain't broke."
"I grew up on Mexican food," Gonzalez said. "A lot of people who eat the same food live to be 100 years old."
Gonzalez said that his girlfriend, Diana Magana, owns a Mexican restaurant, but she won't let him eat popcorn. "I reminded her that when I was in training, I would eat a box of popcorn and that would be my dinner," he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest study, which was designed with help from the Agriculture Department, sampled 135 dishes from mid-priced Mexican-food chains, including Chi-Chi's and El Torito, and independent restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Washington.
To determine the fat and sodium content of each dish, researchers combined samples of a single dish from different restaurants to make one composite and then sent that to a laboratory in Pennsylvania for nutritional testing. The group used the same methodology in its earlier surveys.
Herman Cain, president of the National Restaurant Assn., said that using composites rather than testing each individual sample masks "the fact that the Mexican restaurant sector as a whole is doing an excellent job of providing alternative choices for the nutrition-conscious," even though such customers make up only 30% of their clientele, according to industry polls.
Industry leaders called the study "misleading," but the group said that testing individual samples of each dish would have been too expensive.
Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in the food-services industry, said that composite sampling makes the research "incomplete," because no restaurant actually serves the mixed dish developed by the group.
Jacobson urged restaurateurs to switch to less-fatty cheeses and sour cream, use leaner ground beef and cut the amount of fat added to beans and rice.
Restaurant executives said that their menus already offer plenty of healthy fare but customers in many cases choose the tastier, but more fatty, selections.
"Given a choice, they often pick the high-fat items anyway and go into it with their eyes open," said Bruce MacDiarmid, vice president for marketing for San Francisco-based Chevy's Mexican Restaurants.
"We feel an obligation to offer enough of a variety so people can make their own decision," said Lynn Miller, a spokeswoman for Chi Chi's Mexican Restaurants based in Louisville, Ky. The company has tested low-fat guacamole and other light fare in the past but met with only lukewarm customer response, she said.
Because many Mexican food fans are already aware of the content of their food, demand for overhauling the menus is unlikely, Paul said.
In Los Angeles, La Parrilla owner Maria del Carmen Salas has yielded to customer concerns about health, switching to vegetable oil rather than lard.
"Everybody's afraid of high cholesterol, so we changed for health reasons," she said. But she is not about to tamper with her chile rellenos.
As for suggestions that Mexican restaurants consider switching to brown rice, and that they bake rather than fry tortilla chips, Del Carmen Salas simply rolls her eyes incredulously.
Even though she has switched to vegetable oil in her restaurant, she misses the taste of refried beans cooked the old way.
"I was in Mexico three weeks ago and ate some beans cooked with lard," she said. "They were so good!"
Mexican food has been stereotyped as tortillas, tacos, burritos--some of the most fattening menu items, she said. But traditional Mexican cuisine is laden with a variety of seafood and grilled meats that are low in fat, she said.
Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer and Thomas H. Maugh II contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
* REACTION IN O.C.: Some take findings with grain of salt. Others heed them. D6
The Bad News About Burritos
The list of food that's less-than-healthy continues to grow. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently surveyed a selection of the most popular dishes served at mid-priced fast-food Mexican chains. Their findings: much of the food is very high in fat and sodium. Here is a sampling of items--compared with the recommended daily limits: 65 grams of fat and 2,400 milligrams of sodium.
Food Calories Fat Sodium Grams * Mexican rice 229 4 818 * Refried beans 375 16 791 * Tortilla chips 645 34 679 * Beef/cheese nachos with sour cream, guacamole 1,362 89 2,426 * Chicken fajitas/flour tortillas 839 24 1,526 with beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole 1,661 63 3,657 * Beef burrito 833 40 1,965 with beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole 1,639 79 3,921 * Cheese enchilada 372 24 635 Two enchiladas with beans, rice 1,349 68 2,878 * Chile relleno 487 38 872 Two chile rellenos with beans, rice 1,578 96 3,352 * Taco salad with sour cream, guacamole 1,099 71 1,847
SOURCE: Center for Science in the Public Interest