There are culinary and nutritional differences between corn and flour tortillas. Find out how they differ in carbohydrates, calories and their gluten-free status.
Corn vs Flour Tortilla: What’s the Difference?
Experts tell you to eat more non-starchy vegetables, such as tomatoes; focus on healthy fats, such as in avocados; and try (at least occasionally) to use beans instead of meat.
Sounds like taco time. Or maybe it’s a fajita, burrito, quesadilla, or enchilada night. Whatever the choice, they all start with the tortilla.
A tortilla is basically a thin, soft flatbread, traditionally based on corn or wheat. They originate from Mexico and have been a staple for hundreds of years.
Tortillas come in a variety of sizes, which you can ideally choose based on your culinary need. In other words, a six-foot tortilla is way too big to make a neat, portable street taco.
And while certain recipes work best with corn tortillas, some go better with flour tortillas, and still others are interchangeable.
Aside from culinary preference, is one type of tortilla healthier than another? Let’s find out.
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What is a corn tortilla?
“Corn tortillas are a whole-grain food,” says Christy Wilson, RDN, a nutrition consultant with the Campus Health Service at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “They are traditionally made from ground field maize (maize) which is then processed into masa harina.”
It’s not like using corn straight off the cob.
“Raw, ground corn is treated with lime water (calcium hydroxide, or cal), which softens the corn and gives the masa harina — and ultimately the tortillas — a distinct, savory flavor,” Wilson says.
Technically, this corn processing technique is called nixtamalization, and it also increases nutritional value and reduces carcinogens called aflatoxins.
The tortillas are usually made by combining masa harina (finely ground cornmeal) with warm water and sometimes salt, forming the mixture into a dough, and then dividing it into individual balls. The masa dough balls are then pressed into tortillas, ideally using a tortilla press.
The final step is to cook the tortilla in a hot cast iron pan or comal (griddle) until golden brown and puffy, no more than a few minutes per side.
While they are often yellow, the tortillas can also be naturally white, blue, or purple, depending on the cornmeal chosen. Yes, blue and purple corn exist in nature – no artificial colors are involved.
Corn tortillas are most commonly used to make street tacos, traditional tacos, enchiladas, taquitos, and chilaquiles. They can also be baked to make taco shells or tortilla chips.
Sounds nice? Will you follow this tutorial to make your own corn tortillas? Try Maseca Instant Yellow Corn Masa Flour as the main ingredient.
What is a flour tortilla?
Flour tortillas are often made from all-purpose white flour. That’s wheat, but it’s not a whole grain food.
The tortillas are often made by combining flour, warm water, vegetable oil (or shortening or lard), salt, and sometimes a little baking soda.
It involves kneading the ingredients into a smooth dough, dividing the dough into individual testales (small discs), and rolling out the discs into individual tortillas. The tortillas are quickly cooked in a hot cast iron pan or comal (griddle) until golden brown in spots, which should only take a minute (or less) per side.
Other flours can be swapped in place of white flour. Whole-wheat pastry flour works well as a substitute and provides whole-wheat goodness, including fiber.
Flour tortillas are most commonly used to make burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, flautas, and Tex-Mex style soft tacos.
Want to make your own flour tortillas? Give this homemade tortilla recipe a try. Using oil instead of shortening or lard makes them more heart-friendly.
Corn vs Flour Tortilla: Nutrition Facts
Both types of tortillas provide a variety of nutrients. Based on an equal weight, here’s how their nutrition stacks up. As you put this information into practice, remember that you will not usually eat equal amounts.
Popular sizes for corn tortillas are five to six inches for tacos (about 1 ounce); flour tortillas are seven to eight inches for soft tacos (about 1.5 to 2 ounces), 10 inches for quesadillas (about 2.5 ounces), or 12 inches for burritos (about 3 to 4 ounces).
Factor size in your selection; the bigger the tortilla, the more calories. Fortunately, in addition to those calories, you also get more nutrients.
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A 1-ounce (28.35 grams) corn tortilla has the following nutrients and daily values (DV):
Egg white: 1.6 g (3 percent DV)
Total fat: 0.8 g (1 percent DV)
Carbohydrate: 13 g (5 percent DV)
Fiber: 1.8 g (6 percent DV)
Calcium: 23 mg (2 percent RDA)
Iron: 0.35 mg (2 percent RDA)
Magnesium: 20 mg (48 percent RDA)
Phosphorus: 89 mg (7 percent RDA)
Sodium: 13 mg (<1 percent RDA)
Standout Nutrients in Corn Tortillas
You will find notable amounts of dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus and pantothenic acid in corn tortillas.
In fact, you’ll get about half of your recommended daily dose of magnesium from a 1-ounce corn tortilla.
Magnesium plays a key role in muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis and energy production. Plus, the mineral is “good for bone health and a healthy, steady heart rate,” Wilson says.
Thanks to healthy corn, you’ll find beta-carotene, betaine, lutein, and zeaxanthin, among other health-protecting antioxidants.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are highly beneficial carotenoids for eye health. They can reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness.
One 1-ounce (28.35 grams) of flour has the following nutrients and DV:
Egg white: 2.5 g (5 percent DV)
Total fat: 2 g (3 percent DV)
Carbohydrate: 16 g (6 percent DV)
Fiber: 0.9 g (3 percent DV)
Calcium: 11 mg (1 percent RDA)
Iron: 0.94 mg (5 percent RDA)
Magnesium: 7 mg (17 percent RDA)
Phosphorus: 35 mg (3 percent RDA)
Sodium: 136 mg (6 percent RDA)
Standout Nutrients in Flour Tortillas
Wilson points out that the white flour used in traditional flour tortillas is fortified with nutrients.
You’ll find significant amounts of magnesium, selenium, and the B vitamins thiamine and folate in the tortillas.
Women who don’t get enough folic acid are at a higher risk of having babies with neural tube defects.
Since women of childbearing age and non-Hispanic black women are at risk for inadequate folate intake, flour tortillas may be the preferred choice for them to help prevent deficiency.
Match your tortilla with your diet
Corn tortillas can be the ideal choice when following a vegan, gluten-free, or low-calorie eating plan.
That’s because authentic flour tortillas are sometimes made with lard (that’s pork fat, so incompatible with a vegan diet) and they’re based on wheat, which contains gluten.
They usually have more calories than corn tortillas (although you can check the nutritional information on the package).
Wilson adds that corn tortillas are low in calories because they are also smaller than a typical flour tortilla.
Size and texture matter
“The smaller corn tortilla is perfect for tacos and for taking slow-cooked meats and beans off my plate,” Wilson says. They are also perfect for filling, rolling to make enchiladas, or for filling, rolling and baking in a finger food called flautas [also known as taquito].”
And if you want to bake a batch of tortilla chips, Wilson says that “the thick texture of corn tortillas works really well.”
The larger, softer, and more pliable flour tortillas are great for filling and rolling to make burritos. They are also ideal for sandwich wraps.
“Meat, eggs, cheese, rice, guacamole, salsa, beans, vegetables, and cilantro can all be packaged and rolled into a large flour tortilla,” Wilson says.
Do you have a high energy requirement? A flour tortilla is your friend.
“You can safely hold a few pounds of food in your hand if it’s wrapped in a warm flour tortilla,” she says. “Physically they are much larger (up to 24 inches in diameter) and can carry more food.”
How to Shop for Tortillas
Before you put a package of tortillas in your shopping cart, here are some things to consider.
Buy based on what you cook
“I will buy a certain type [of tortilla] depending on what I serve them with,” says Wilson. “If it’s tacos I make, it’s corn; when I make chicken quesadillas as my meal, I go for larger flour tortillas.
Don’t be fooled by color
Sometimes a color is an indicator of health. But not always.
“While adding veggies to a favorite food like tortillas may sound ‘healthy,’ check the ingredient list. Often it’s the last ingredient listed, indicating there isn’t much of it,” Wilson says.
More often than not, your “vegetarian” tortillas add little in the way of nutrition and just offer you a different color.
Factor in health
The cornmeal used in corn tortillas is based on the whole corn kernel.
The all-purpose (white) flour often used in flour tortillas doesn’t use the whole wheat kernel — it’s stripped of the germ and bran, taking away some of the antioxidant benefits and fiber.
To get whole-wheat benefits with flour tortillas, look for whole-wheat, whole-wheat, or sprouted whole-wheat varieties.
Since corn can be genetically modified (GMO), and since some of the added fats in flour tortillas can come from genetically modified sources, look for USDA certified organic tortillas or non-GMO Project verified tortillas if you prefer to avoid GMOs.
Check out the newcomers
In addition to different types, sizes and colors of corn and flour tortillas, there are nutrient-rich additions. And a growing number of options contain no corn or flour at all.
Here are the latest finds you may want to try:
- La Tortilla Factory offers a wide variety of tortillas, including whole-wheat protein tortillas that use a pea and rice protein mixture.
- Siete Foods has grain-free tortillas with chickpea flour, almond flour or a mix of cassava and coconut flour.
- Angelic Bakehouse makes sprouted whole wheat wraps/tortillas that contain pressed or dried vegetables.
- Mission Foods has a line of organic tortillas.
- Caulipower offers (you guessed it) cauliflower tortillas with or without grains.
Corn vs Flour Tortilla: Which Is Healthier?
Although there is a tempting array of tortillas on the market today, the most popular choices are still traditional corn or (white) flour tortillas.
They both provide an abundance of nutrients, but there is a best overall choice.
“If we’re talking purely about health and nutrition, corn tortillas are a few steps ahead of flour because they have more fiber, calcium, and magnesium and fewer total carbohydrates and calories,” Wilson says.
In addition, corn tortillas are higher in antioxidant power, considered slightly less processed and gluten-free. They are the right choice if these are important features for you.
“Although, because [corn tortillas] being smaller is the ultimate risk of eating several at once,” Wilson says. “So, as always, watch your portions.”
In any case, don’t worry about the selection of tortillas.
Whether you prefer a corn or flour tortilla (or both at once), know that you can’t go wrong by filling your tortilla of choice with boatloads of veggies, beans, and a luxurious dollop of guacamole.
Can’t get enough of tortillas? Check out these tasty recipes: