When it comes to fast-food cheat meals, many opt for Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme. But what's really in it? And is it really that bad for you? Let's take a look.
Here's a peek at the nutrition label: 530 calories, 21 grams of fat, six grams of saturated fat, zero grams of trans fat, 25 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,190 milligrams of sodium, 71 grams of carbohydrates, six grams of dietary fiber, six grams of sugars, 16 grams of protein.
And the listed ingredients: There are 82 of them — waaay too many to list. These include: carrageenan (known to cause inflammation), hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil (linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes) and cellulose gum (a.k.a. wood pulp).
The Bad News
Sure, the Crunchwrap Supreme contains half of your recommended daily allowance of sodium, but it can be concerning for other reasons, namely:
Hidden Trans Fat: While the nutrition label says the Crunchwrap has zero grams of trans fat, there's actually some hiding out in the hydrogenated oils in the flour tortilla, taco shell and nacho cheese sauce. "A labeling loophole allows manufacturers to round trans fats down to zero on the label, so they can still contain up to half a gram of hidden trans fats," says nutritionist Karen Ansel, RD. Trans fats are the nasty kind you should avoid at all costs because they raise your bad cholesterol levels (while lowering your good ones) and have been linked with heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
A Whole Lot of Simple Carbs: A serving of carbs is 15 grams. So at 71 grams of carbs, the Crunchwrap is stuffed with nearly five servings! That's like eating five slices of bread in one sitting, explains nutritionist Jess Cording, RD. While there is some protein and fat to help slow down digestion, it's not enough to balance things out. "I find that when someone has a meal this high in carbs, unless they require a lot because they're doing an athletic competition, that tends to be a bit too high," she says, making you crash and feel hungry not that long after.
What's more, the vast majority of those carbs are simple carbohydrates that your body converts into sugar, says nutrition, obesity and diet expert Christopher Ochner, Ph.D. Most come from the tortilla, which is made with enriched whole wheat — but don't let the "enriched" or the "whole" part trick you into thinking it's healthy. "Functionally, it's like sand," Ochner says. "They add in just enough vitamins to get it above the acceptable FDA level, but to your body it's about the same as spoonfuls of sugar."
A Deceiving Number of Calories and Fat: At 530 calories, 21 grams of fat and six grams saturated fat, the Crunchwrap is reasonable for a single meal. But eat anything else at lunch and you'll break the calorie bank. Eat two and you've exceeded your 2,000 calories for the day — and you still have two meals to go. "Anything you eat in your meal beyond this will probably get stored as fat," Ochner says.
Ochner adds that he always looks at the calorie-to-protein ratio of a food first, since protein is the best macronutrient for losing weight and keeping it off. Any ratio over 20, Ochner says, is bad. And because the Crunchwrap Supreme is so high in calories to protein (530 to 16), it comes in at 33. "Even a lot of things at McDonald's have better ratios," he says. "I don't think this is much worse than a Big Mac or a Whopper, but it's probably not that much better."
Additives Could Give You an Upset Stomach: While carrageenan may be made from an all-natural ingredient — seaweed extract — it may cause stomach upset, says Ansel. Add that to high levels of simple carbs and fats and you've got a recipe for an unsettled tummy.
Additives are also what make the Crunchwrap crunchy. Cellulose appears five times on the label: in the tortilla, beef, cream and nacho cheese sauce. Lisa Harnack, DrPH, RD, MPH, Lisa Harnack, DrPH, RD, MPH, the director of the Nutrition Coordinating Center at the University of Minnesota, explains it's a dietary fiber that helps thicken things up. And it's not the only thickener: Carrageenan, guar gum, locust bean gum, fumaric acid and maltodextrin all serve the same purpose. "My guess is they're filling that crunchy corn tortilla with meat and veggies and other sauces, and they don't want those ingredients to soften the shell or leak onto your hands and clothes," says Harnack.
The Good News
An "Excellent" Source of Vitamins: Harnack and other researchers at the University of Minnesota reverse-engineer the recipes of packaged and restaurant foods using the ingredients label to guesstimate their nutrition content. According to Harnack, the Crunchwrap Supreme actually "has a lot of vitamins and minerals." It's an "excellent source" — meaning it contains more than 20 percent of the FDA's recommended daily value — of dietary fiber, protein, calcium, vitamin K, riboflavin and folic acid. It's also a "good source" — containing 10 to 19 percent of your daily value — of vitamins B-6, B-12, zinc and potassium.
"Incidentally, you'll get vitamins. But I could take a quarter of a Centrum and get more," says Ochner. Ansel agrees. "If I had to call out one positive I'd say it's high in iron and calcium and contains a fair amount of fiber. But there are many healthier ways to get these minerals and nutrients," she says.
At Least the Cheese Is Low Fat: Unlike some fast-food items, nothing in the Crunchwrap is unsafe to eat, says Ochner. In fact, some recognizable ingredients are actually OK for you: lettuce, tomatoes, tomato powder, lowfat dairy, nonfat milk. "My guess is they know to some extent people are starting to pay attention to the nutrition profile, and using lowfat dairy is an easy way to reduce the calories and fat," says Ochner. Even the beef is probably lean, since the overall saturated fat content isn't terribly high — and it offers some protein, iron and zinc.
But that doesn't mean the Crunchwrap is good for you. "Put it all together, and it's still not something I'd eat," says Ochner.
The Final Verdict?
The Crunchwrap Supreme is OK if it's a rare splurge. "If you have one a month, it's not going to kill you or make you fat. You're not eating yoga mats or Styrofoam. But most people aren't good at moderation. And if not consumed in moderation, this is poison," Ochner says.
If you're still craving Taco Bell and want to be wiser with your calories, Cording suggests the Power Menu Bowl Combo, which you can modify to meet your needs and load up with veggies, grilled chicken, beans and guacamole for a more balanced meal. "Think about your priorities and how you'll feel afterwards," Ansel says.
And About Those Other Intimidating Ingredients…
While several hard-to-pronounce ingredients in the wrap might seem scary, Ochner says they're actually very common. Let's decode a few:
Calcium propionate: A preservative found everywhere, including in the packaged bread you buy from the store.
Dipotassium phosphate and sodium stearoyl lactylate: Emulsifiers, which help liquids and oil mix.
Guanylate: In the sodium family, gives foods a satisfying umami flavor.
Distilled monoglycerides: An oil made with sunflower seeds or soybeans, it's "in everything," says Ochner.
Natural flavors: These are concentrated, freeze-dried versions of natural foods, like roots and spices.
Lactic acid: Lactic acid is the stuff your body produces to process milk. In milk products, it's used as preservative and flavoring agent, although it's also used as a decontaminant during meat processing — which might explain why it's found not only in the sour cream and cheese, but also the beef.
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What Do YOU Think?
Would you try Taco Bell's latest diet buster as a special treat? Share your favorite fast-food menu items in the comments below.