30 January 2012

A burrito that's worth its salt?

Our car was barely inching along, caught in horrendous rush-hour traffic. Three classmates and I were on our way to a concert, and we needed to grab dinner before curtain. We pulled off the freeway and found a Chipotle restaurant (part of a national burrito chain). In line, I was amused to find that Chipotle now offers brown rice as a way of catering to health-conscious customers. Just what is in a Chipotle burrito?

Using Chipotle's online nutrition facts, I tabulated the sodium content for a typical burrito consisting of a flour tortilla, shredded beef, brown rice, pinto beans, mild salsa, cheese, and guacamole. This burrito contains 2,460 mg of sodium. With chips, it's 2,880 mg.

To put these numbers in context, the FDA advises that "Americans 51 or older, African-Americans of any age, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should restrict their [daily sodium] intake to 1,500 mg." For the other approximately half of Americans, the FDA recommends a daily sodium intake of under 2,300 mg. The meal above substantially exceeded the recommended limit. I even held the sour cream, and I didn't order salsa for the chips!

Not that the salt is necessary. When I make burritos at home, the sodium content is about a quarter of a Chipotle burrito's (and I get to add delicious sauteed vegetables like zucchini). I don't wish to accuse Chipotle of being a particularly bad offender--indeed, it's admirable that they display their nutrition facts so prominently. Rather, these crazy values are typical of the food we eat out of a can, from a bag, or in a restaurant. It also begins to explain why it is so out of the ordinary for me to encounter patients in the free clinic who do not have hypertension.

On Thursday, I explore Congress's and the FDA's inaction on regulating the salt content of our food.