Nearly every culture has found some irresistible way to fry dough: In Israel, there are the jelly-filled sufganiyot; in China, a twisted dough stick known as you tiao; and then there are the funnel cakes of Pennsylvania Dutch country. We can thank Spanish explorers for the skinny, crispy treats called churros--sold throughout South- ern California, from Disneyland to historic Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.
The fluted snacks are believed to have originated in Spain and arrived in the New World on the ships of explorers, food historians say. Over the centuries, they became as much a part of breakfast in Mexico City and Buenos Aires as in Madrid, often dunked into a cup of steaming hot chocolate.
They can be found wherever Spanish-speaking cultures settled in this country and are especially popular in the Southwest. Because churros are more of an occasional treat than a staple of daily eating, nutritionists need not fret too much about all the refined carbohydrates and calories. And let's face it, when you pick up some churros, wrapped in a sheet of bakery tissue, you know you're indulging.
"If you're looking for a nutritional powerhouse, this isn't it," says Joan Carter, a registered dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "It's a fun food."
So how big a dietary detour is that churro? Let's look at the ingredients. A batter essentially consisting of water, flour, eggs, sugar and a pinch of salt is piped through a pastry bag into long strips, deep-fried in vegetable oil, then rolled in cinnamon mixed with sugar. (The Spanish use sugar alone.) At Mr. Churro on Olvera Street, owner Leticia Delgadillo's recipe includes vinegar, which makes a smoother batter. Other chefs enrich their batters with margarine or butter. There are also cream- and custard-filled varieties.
How do those ingredients shape up nutritionally? The recipe for Mr. Churro's freshly made treats is proprietary, so a good reference point might be a 10-inch, 2.6-ounce plain churro from California Churros, a Montclair firm that supplies frozen churros that can be heated at home. Based on information on the company Web site, one churro contains 237 calories--about the same as a small bag of French fries or a doughnut, said Carter.
The churro also contains about 9 of the 65 fat grams recommended by the USDA on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. It has nearly 35 of the day's recommended 300 grams of carbohydrates, which the body breaks down into sugar--and that's before it's been rolled in cinnamon-sugar. There's less than a gram of dietary fiber to slow down the breakdown of those carbohydrates, although the fat does slow the rate at which your stomach digests the churro. Not a lot of protein to help build muscle and tissues--just 3.9 grams from the flour and eggs. Don't forget the salt, about 226 milligrams, or about 10% of the recommended daily limit of 2,400 milligrams. Enriched flour provides negligible amounts of calcium, iron and vitamins.
Carolyn Katzin, a certified nutrition specialist in Brentwood, worries about the effects of reheating the frying oil for batch after batch of churros. Fresh oil contains vitamin E or a preservative to keep it from turning rancid. But as soon as you heat the oil, it begins oxidizing, which is the chemical process of going rancid. Each time you reheat it, some of the fatty acids are released into the air, where they combine with dust particles. As your nose is detecting the characteristic aroma, the reused oil in that deep-fat fryer is changing chemically, picking up more hydrogen (thus the term hydrogenated oils) and forming trans-fatty acids, which are increasingly associated with heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
So where does the deep-fried churro fit into your day's calories?
Carter says it's a reasonable amount for a snack splurge: "My goal," she says, "is 300 calories or less for an indulgence. If I want to be good, I eat an apple and then I get 90 calories."
As for all those carbs, the real health concern is whether they end up being transformed into excess body fat. And that's going to depend on whether you burn all the calories you eat. The bottom line: If that churro boosts your food intake one day, cut back on subsequent meals and snacks, or jump on the treadmill. The average person could neutralize the potential caloric damage of a single churro with a 2.5-mile run.
Healthy, normal-weight children who show no signs of a pre-diabetic condition called glucose intolerance shouldn't have any problem with churros as a special treat, Carter says, because "they'll burn everything you give them for energy."
While the churro has little to commend itself nutritionally, Carter says, food is about more than nutrition: "It offers social bonding, cultural identity; it offers fun and pleasure."
So don't be afraid of churros, she adds. "You will not wake up tomorrow weighing 10 pounds more."
Booster Shots ... will return soon. Columnist Rosie Mestel is on vacation.