Shortly after Chipotle announced that it would begin phasing out all genetically modified ingredients, The New York Times pointed out a stunning statistic: The chain's entire menu contains 64 ingredients, compared with 81 ingredients in a single burrito from an unnamed competitor. As it turns out, 11 of those ingredients were lurking in Chipotle's tortillas — and CEO Steve Ells is trying to change that. 

As it stands now, the tortilla ingredient list is as follows: flour, water, whole wheat flour, canola oil, salt, baking soda, wheat bran, fumaric acid, calcium propionate, sorbic acid and sodium metabisulfite. The goal — following the Mark Bittman adage of not eating anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food — is to reduce the list to four simple, easy-to-pronounce ingredients: whole wheat flour, water, oil and salt. 

“We aspire to make artisanal tortillas on an industrial scale,” Ells, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, told the Times. Because Chipotle goes through roughly 800,000 tortillas every day, it’s going to be a long, uphill climb toward "artisanal." It doesn’t want its tortillas to receive the same ridiculed fate that befell McDonald’s 12-ingredient “artisanal” chicken breast, and if the ingredient list of the major brands of tortillas is any indication, its goal may not be so easy to achieve.

Helping the chain along the journey is The Bread Lab, part of the plant-breeding program at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon research center, north of Seattle. There, scientists and bakers study the diversity of locally grown grains to determine those most suitable for craft baking, malting, brewing, distilling, and in this case, tortilla making.

Chipotle, in keeping with its mission to improve the nutritional content of fast food, is looking to use hard white wheat flour in its revamped tortillas so they will bestow on consumers all the fibrous benefits of whole grains while still keeping the bleached-white appearance millions of burrito eaters have come to know and love.

So, Why Should You Care?

Eight out of 10 Americans eat fast food at least once a month. Most of the old-guard establishments — McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell — stake their business models on highly processed, sodium-rich foods that are cheap to source and produce. The disruption happening in fast food — healthier offerings in response to falling same-store sales—can largely be attributed to Chipotle, which has made a successful brand from the appearance of providing healthier, ethically sourced food at affordable prices. CEO Ells has shown his commitment to creating a more ethical and sustainable business model by cutting all GMO ingredients from the menu, only sourcing from farmers that ethically raise animals, and bringing in as much organic produce as cost allows. If he continues to be successful, others will imitate his moves, leading to a more ethical and environmentally friendly food industry.

It’s not going to be as simple as ripping key ingredients out of the recipe and sending a new list of instructions over to the factories. The chain will have to figure out how to manage with a shorter shelf life while maintaining that signature Chipotle taste and keeping costs down (it's already hiked prices twice in the past year).

The Bread Lab is working on creating larger batches of the new, simplified tortillas, which will be slowly introduced at test locations.

Creating a four-ingredient tortilla on such a massive scale would be unprecedented. But so was getting America to start eating tofu instead of pork, and Chipotle managed that just fine.