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New Mexico State University

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Expert: Despite Report, Mexican Food Can Be Healthy

LAS CRUCES- Mexican food lovers may not need to put down their forks just yet in response to a report that slammed the cuisine as too high in fat and sodium, a New Mexico State University nutritional scientist said.


Smart preparation, lower-fat ingredients and saying no to extras like sour cream can reduce fat in Mexican meals that provide beneficial doses of soluble fiber, calcium and vitamins, said Ann Bock with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

A 1994 study by the Center of Science in the Public Interest found unpalatably high levels of fat and sodium in Mexican restaurant fare. The report skewered items like fried chile rellenos and chimichangas.

"I think one of the hazards associated with some reports is that they give the impression that all foods in this category are not healthy," Bock said. "There are elements of the Mexican diet that are healthy."

Corn tortillas, for example, are a good source of calcium. They also provide the B-vitamin niacin in a form the body readily absorbs, Bock said.

"Chile is another good aspect of the Mexican diet because it provides fiber, vitamin C, and beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A," she said.

Bock found pinto beans provide an important supplementary source of calcium when she recently teamed up with Purdue researchers to study calcium absorption. A half-cup of uncooked pinto beans yields about a quarter of the amount of absorbable calcium found in a cup of low-fat milk, she said.

Beans also provide soluble fiber that may help the body control how lipids (fats) are absorbed.

However, it's easy for those healthy ingredients to get weighed down on the way to the table.

"Using high-fat versions of cheese, techniques that require frying and adding extras like sour cream are what add calories and fat," Bock said.

Changing cooking habits can go a long way toward making Mexican food healthier.

For example, Bock suggests taking the "fried" out of refried beans. Just boil them, add spices and mash, leaving out the fat.

"When you make enchiladas, instead of softening your corn tortillas in fat, you can soften them in enchilada sauce for a much lower-fat, lower-calorie type of dish," she said.

Lower-fat cheeses are another smart substitution. Saying "no" to sour cream and other add-ons also cuts fat and calories.

"It is possible to get a lower-fat, lower-calorie version of these dishes," Bock said. "Making up your mind to do this is the best way to manage it."

A new educational video from NMSU's Agricultural Communications Department offers ideas for low-fat Mexican cookery. Videotaped demonstrations feature family educators with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program administered by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. For ordering information, call (505) 646-1173.