Corn Tortillas vs. Flour Tortillas for Diabetics

Which Tortilla Is a Better Choice?

corn and flour tortillas
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Tortillas are extremely popular in the United States and a staple food in many homes. What would Mexican food dishes and restaurants be without the tortillas?

They are good on their own, wrapped around food, or even used as a utensil. You have likely been asked more than once: Corn or flour?

The Skinny on Corn vs. Flour Tortillas

Here is a breakdown of nutrition facts for corn versus flour tortillas so you can make a good choice.

Let's delve into which is a better option and why in regard to preventing type 2 diabetes and maintaining good blood sugar levels for those of us who already have it.

Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas were a nutritious staple food in the New World and were used well before flour tortillas came into existence. Some think they have been made since 3000 B.C. and were originally called tlaxcalli before being renamed by the Spaniards.

Corn is hard to digest and much of corn is not absorbed by the body. To remedy this, in the old traditional preparation of corn tortillas, the maize or corn is soaked in an alkaline solution such as slaked lime (calcium hydroxide or cal) or ash to dissolve the hard outer indigestible shell.

This process is called nixtamalization. This bumps up the nutrition and bioavailability of corn to new heights, which is why it was such a successful staple food. Levels of protein, vitamins and minerals are increased.

If slaked lime is used to treat the corn, it acts as a calcium supplement for the tortillas.

What's in Corn Tortillas?

Corn tortillas usually have a very short and simple ingredient list. They are traditionally made with only ground corn and water. Modern corn tortillas have the same basic ingredient list but they also can contain preservatives.

You may see lime on the ingredient list indicating that they likely were made in the traditional way. However, companies search for ways to to bypass this method.

Store-bought corn tortillas are often bland versions of traditional homemade corn tortillas, but you can restore a bit of the texture and flavor. They are not very hard to make. Corn tortillas are good for a gluten-free diet. They are low fat and provide fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, and B vitamins.

Flour Tortillas

Flour tortillas became a staple food relatively recently in the northern states of Mexico and for many Native American tribes in the southwestern United States.

Coincidentally, diabetes became epidemic in a short time as flour tortillas replaced the corn tortilla as a staple food after wheat flour was introduced to the New World by Spain.

Flour tortillas are usually cheaper to make with inferior wheat flour, are softer, and ship well. This makes them a very popular export item from Mexico.

The most common size of flour tortilla sold is 12 inches.

However, you can sometimes find smaller ones. Alternatively, you can also encounter unbelievably large or thick fluffy tortillas such as those for fajitas.

What's in Flour Tortillas?

Flour tortillas can have a longer ingredient list and sometimes the fat used to make them can be hydrogenated. They are traditionally made from white flour, salt, water, and oil or lard. Flour tortillas are also considered low-fat and contain iron and B vitamins.

Basic Nutrition Data

  • 1 (6-inch) corn tortilla has 58 calories, 1 g fat, 12 g carb, 1 g fiber, and 1 g protein
  • 1 (6-inch) flour tortilla has 94 calories, 2.32 g fat, 15.4 g carb, .9 g fiber, 2.49 g protein

Inch for inch, corn tortillas are the winner for nutrition data in all categories, except for protein where flour tortillas have twice as much protein as corn.

However, flour tortillas have more than twice as much fat and usually not the good kind of fat. The fat in corn tortillas comes from the natural fat in corn. Although they are close in fiber counts, you can get away with eating more than one corn tortilla and get more fiber, protein, and still get less fat.

As you can see below, the common 12-inch flour tortilla can almost be a meal in itself with a whopping calorie and carb count.

  • 1 (12-inch) flour tortilla has 356 calories, 9 g fat (2 g saturated), 59 g carb, 4 g fiber, and 9 g protein

Diabetes Low-Down

Corn tortillas have slightly fewer carbs. Both corn and flour tortillas are considered low-glycemic foods. The surprise is that according to most sources, flour tortillas have a lower glycemic value. However, I find different values from different sources. To add to the confusion, some sources claim the reverse -- that corn tortillas have a lower glycemic value than flour.

This confusion may be because of the higher fat content in flour tortillas. Fat can lower a glycemic index value because it slows down the rate of digestion.

Identical batches of cookies can have different values if one batch was made with fat and the other wasn't. The batch made with fat would have a lower glycemic index value although both would raise blood sugar levels the same amount. Adding fat to foods does not make them a better choice.

And the Winner Is ...

Corn tortillas!

They win across the board. Corn tortillas offer more nutrition, are low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber, and a good choice if you want to avoid gluten. When you are on a restrictive diet, it is better to make choices that explode with good nutrition.

If we go outside the "regular" corn and flour tortilla choices, an even better choice may be whole-grain flour tortillas. Be sure to check the nutrition label as they can vary from brand to brand. So if you have the option, your first choice could be whole-grain flour tortillas, then corn tortillas, and then flour tortillas.

Even Healthier Alternative Tortilla Options

Blue corn tortillas have been found to be a good choice. These tortillas have 20% more protein, less carbohydrate, and a lower glycemic index than regular corn tortillas. They also contain anthocyanins, the same healthy compound found in red wine and berries.

Other choices include whole corn kernel tortillas and sprouted whole kernel corn tortillas.

How to Warm Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas from the market are often like cardboard -- brittle and with little flavor. Traditional home-made tortillas are soft, puffy, and hollow like pita bread. They are served warm and visibly steamy.

The way I personally prepare them is over an open flame burner. I wet my hands and very lightly moisten the tortilla with my damp hands. Then I warm it over the burner, flipping every few seconds to prevent burning.

This produces a very soft, steamy, and pliable corn tortilla. Be advised, if they are old, they may just fall apart with this method. Many people simply place them over the flame dry, and flip every few seconds until warm and toasty. This also produces very good results.

If you don't have an open flame burner, or if you prefer, you can warm them on a warmed cast iron pan or griddle over medium heat. Flip every few seconds to avoid burning. Allow the tortilla to get a little toasty.

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