Bookmark and Share December 11, 2009 - Dave Mulder

Chipotle’s flour tortillas and trans fat

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that I am a big fan of Chipotle. Despite being a national company with a need for an industrial, oil-lubricated supply chain, the restaurant maintains a vision of “food with integrity”.

Let’s consider Chipotle’s flour tortillas for a moment. Edible flour tortillas require a little bit of fat (usually an oil or lard). If you want to make a vegan tortilla, lard is out, so you’re left with. But it’s hard to find oils that work right.

Enter trans fat, the recently ostracized fat which has been shown to have negative health impact. No major food company wants to touch trans fats with a ten-foot pole for fear of being demonized. But some places, like Chipotle, are stuck in a precarious position. Vegan/vegetarian tortillas can’t use lard or butter in their production, and palm oil (the vegetarian substitute) has an atrocious environmental record.

Possible options for flour tortillas

  • Lard: animal fat, non-vegetarian
  • Butter: animal product, non-vegan
  • Palm oil: environmentally disastrous
  • Soybean oil: needs to be hydrogenated (trans fats)

And that’s the list. If you were Chipotle, which one would you pick?

I wasn’t sure, so I asked. Here’s what Shannon Kyllo of Chipotle had to say:

Unfortunately, we do still have a trace amount of transfats in our flour tortillas (less than 0.5 grams). The trace transfats in our tortillas comes from hydrogenated soybean oil. Tortillas are one of those things that take solid fats to work correctly. You’ve got the option of tortillas made with lard (saturated fats), tortillas made with palm oil (environmentally disastrous), or hydrogenated vegetable shortening (transfats). According to modern science, it’s kind of a lose-lose situation. Also, in keeping our tortillas vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, lard or butter is out of the question so we went with soybean oil.

There you have it. Chipotle went the trans fat route, but not simply because it’s the least expensive. Given the various possibilities, they were left with a choice between a small amount of trans fat (hydrogenated soybean oil) and environmentally disastrous palm oil. Though they went with soybean oil, the door is open for a switch to trans-fat-free soybean oil in the future.

Though initially off-put at hearing Shannon’s response, I realized that Chipotle’s reasoning makes sense. With less than 0.5g per serving, it’s a very tiny portion of trans fat. Technically, Chipotle is allowed to advertise that their tortillas have “zero trans fat”. But they didn’t here, and they should be commended for that.

While I eat at Chipotle much less frequently than I used to, it’s nice to know that a chain restaurant actually gives a damn about its social and environmental impacts on the world.

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