Three tacos made with corn tortillas

Whether they’re used for traditional dishes like tacos and enchiladas or turned into roll-up sandwiches or pizzas, tortillas have become hugely popular. Sales have increased by 5 to 9 percent every year since 1996, according to the latest data from the Tortilla Industry Association.

And there a lot more options on the market than the classic corn and flour varieties. You’ve got low-carb, cauliflower-based, and even green-tinged spinach ones.

Many people assume that tortillas are a healthier choice than bread, and some of the non-traditional options sport a health halo. But how good for you are they really?

The short answer is, it depends. “The fact that tortillas are flat and don’t seem dense in comparison to bread or other grain products adds to their attractiveness,” says Lourdes Castro Mortillaro, MS, RDN, director of the NYU Food Lab and adjunct professor of nutrition and food studies. Tortillas can have roughly the same calories, carbohydrates, and fiber as bread, ounce for ounce. 

One thing tortillas are is extremely versatile. It’s easy to turn a tortilla into a delicious, fun-to-eat meal that can also be good for you, depending on which one you choose and how you use it.

Corn vs. Flour

For a long time, corn and flour were the only two varieties to choose from. Corn tortillas have been around for thousands of years and were an important food in both Mayan and Aztec diets, says Castro Mortillaro. Flour tortillas are a newer but also authentic option originating in Mexico.

More on Healthy Eating

In a side-by-side nutrition competition between these more traditional tortillas, corn tortillas come out ahead.

“Corn is a whole grain, while flour tortillas are usually made from refined white flour,” says Amy Keating, RD, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. For example, a 6-inch corn tortilla from popular brand Mission will run you around 50 calories, 10 grams carbs, 1.5 grams fiber, and 5 mg sodium. The company’s same size Fajita Flour Tortillas have 90 calories, 17 grams carbs, no fiber, and 260 mg sodium. Corn tortillas can be more flavorful and have a bit of texture to them, where flour tortillas are blander, with a doughy consistency.

Corn tortillas can supply some built-in portion control. “Corn tortillas tend to be smaller in diameter than flour tortillas,” Castro Mortillaro says. Flour tortillas are more likely to come in 8- or 10-inch sizes or larger; the gluten protein in flour and fat added to them gives them structure and pliability that helps them hold together at larger sizes. Naturally gluten-free corn tortillas break apart more easily the bigger (and more filled) they get.

“Corn is also a better choice if sodium is a concern,” Keating says. And the larger the flour tortillas are, typically the more sodium they contain. For example, Old El Paso Flour Tortillas for Burritos have 250 mg sodium each, while the company’s Restaurant Style Grande version has 600 mg.

If you like the taste of flour tortillas but are looking for something a little better for you, choose whole wheat over regular. One Whole Foods’ 365 7½-inch regular flour tortilla has 150 calories, 25 grams carbs, 1 gram fiber, and 220 mg sodium. The whole-wheat variety has 130 calories, 21 grams carbs, 4 grams fiber, and 260 mg sodium each.

But as with any food, be mindful of the portion size, even when choosing the healthier option—a 9½-inch burrito-sized whole-wheat tortilla from La Tortilla Factory supplies 170 calories, 31 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, and 380 mg sodium.

Low-Carb Tortillas

A number of brands have introduced “low-carb” tortillas so that those cutting back on the nutrient don’t have to go without their tacos. What’s tricky, though, is that many aren’t necessarily low-carb—or low calorie. “They are low in net carbs, which is the number reached when you subtract the amount of fiber from the total amount of carbohydrates,” Castro Mortillaro says. "Net carbs" isn’t a universally recognized concept; the American Diabetes Association recommends people with diabetes track total carbs instead.

What’s more, these products often have added ingredients, such as soy fiber and cellulose, to up the amount of fiber per serving. “The research is pretty clear on the fact that isolated nutrients taken from their natural food source do not offer the same benefits as when the nutrients are consumed in their whole form,” Castro Mortillaro says. 

Before you buy a low-carb tortilla, look at the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients list to be sure of what you’re getting.

Veggie Tortillas

These healthier sounding vegetable-infused options aren’t actually veggie-packed. While Mission’s Garden Spinach Herb Wraps, for instance, contain a bit of spinach powder, they also rely on Yellow 5 Lake and Blue 1 Lake for their bright hue. La Tortilla Factory Power Greens Wraps contain actual kale, spinach, chard, and parsley, but they make up 2 percent or less of the ingredients. 

There’s also a newer breed of cauliflower-based tortillas like Caulipower’s cauliflower tortillas and La Tortilla Factory’s tortillas with cassava flour. Though cauliflower is the first ingredient in both of these products, meaning that it’s the most prevalent, neither one is lower in calories than a standard tortilla.

“If you love cauliflower and want the health benefits from it, such as fiber and antioxidants, you would be better off using a basic corn tortilla and stuffing it with roasted or grilled cauliflower,” Castro Mortillaro says.

For a tortilla that will actually bump up your vegetable intake, try jicama tortillas or wraps. Several stores from Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods to Central Market now sell thinly sliced slabs of this mild-flavored root vegetable. Each tortilla has around 8 calories and 1.5 grams carbs. You can use them crunchy and raw or pan-seared, which makes them more pliable.

Wrapping Things Up

Regardless of the tortilla you choose, look for one made with simple, basic ingredients. Commercial varieties may have preservatives and other additives; the tortillas made with ingredients you could stock in your kitchen are more likely to be better tasting and better for you. As always, the nutrition and ingredients list on the back of the package will give you more useful information than the marketing on the front of the package.

For a balanced meal, stick with one or two moderately sized tortillas and stuff them with a mixture of beans and vegetables. For instance, fill a corn tortilla with black beans seasoned with garlic powder and cumin, corn, chopped peppers, sliced avocado, and salsa.

Or for breakfast, consider migas, which is scrambled eggs with peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Instead of adding the typical fried tortilla strips, simply serve it over a corn tortilla. For something less traditional, roll a whole-wheat flour tortilla with peanut butter and banana for an easy breakfast or wrap grilled salmon with mango salsa into jicama tortillas for dinner. And enjoy, says Castro Mortillaro. “Eating with your hands makes mealtime all the more fun.”