Rumors have long swirled around the ingredients used by Taco Bell in the fast food giant’s perpetual quest to serve tasty, low-cost, Mexican-themed fare to customers while jacking up profits for itself. The most abundant of rumors are related to the restaurant’s seasoned beef recipe, which is officially described as consisting of “88% Premium Beef and 12% Signature Recipe.” Upon reading that description, the question that immediately comes to mind is, “what’s in that 12%?” Recently, Taco Bell has taken steps to answer that question, and others like it, by creating the ‘Beef Ingredient and Taco Bell Meat Grade FAQ’ on the company’s official website.
Unofficially referred to as Taco Bell’s “unpronounceable ingredients” page, the company’s Beef Ingredient and Taco Bell Meat Grade FAQ explains exactly what ingredients are included in that “other 12 %,” and why they are used. The FAQ consists of 17 questions, all of which can be clicked to reveal their straightforward, unscientific answers.
So, what can you learn by reading this FAQ? For starters, you can dispel some of those rumors. Reading this FAQ, we learned that Taco Bell does not, in fact, use Grade D meat. Furthermore, we learned there is no such thing as Grade D meat. The FAQ states simply that, “there’s no such grade given by the USDA for beef.” The beef used by Taco Bell is just like any other “USDA-inspected, 100% premium real beef.” Taco Bell’s beef may be cheap, but purchasing over 300 million pounds per year gets you a bulk discount.
What about the seasoning, though? People are (rightly) skeptical about consuming mysterious ingredients, now more than ever. Taco Bell’s FAQ explains these, too. For example, the seasoning’s “artificial flavor” is simply black pepper. “Modified corn starch” is simply corn starch which is used “as a thickener and to maintain moisture in our seasoned beef.” We’ll give more examples as we go, but you get the idea.
Recently, advocates for healthy eating have called for consumers to avoid eating foods containing ingredients that are labeled with “unpronounceable words.” The idea behind this warning is that companies use scientific labels to obscure the inclusion of unhealthy ingredients in the displayed lists. Taco Bell’s FAQ is a reaction to these calls for boycott, and the company’s way of giving their customers more information about what they’re consuming when they eat at a Taco Bell restaurant.
Take, for example, “trehalose.” What on Earth is trehalose? Could it be a harmful chemical? Taco Bell explains in its FAQ that,” [trehalose is] a naturally occurring sugar that we use to improve the taste of our seasoned beef.” Turns out trehalose isn’t very frightening after all.
How about “maltodextrin,” that doesn’t sound like a natural ingredient, does it? According to the FAQ, “[maltodextrin is] actually a form of mildly sweet sugar we use to balance the flavor.” The FAQ goes on to say that “you may have had it the last time you had a natural soda.” That doesn’t sound so very bad, either.
That’s the thing about these ingredients, while their names may sound esoteric, there are no common, household names for these sugars. To label maltodextrin as it is described by The Sugar Association’s website, “a short chain of molecularly linked dextrose (glucose) molecules … manufactured by regulating the hydrolysis of starch … produced from corn, potato or rice” would take up a substantial amount of room in a list of ingredients while still not providing much information. When it comes to describing maltodextrin, calling it maltodextrin will have to do.
Trehalose, by the way, is a naturally occurring sugar found in everything from honey and mushrooms to shrimp and lobster. Going back to The Sugar Association, we find that the FDA has not objected to the use of trehalose in food.
Since these distinct sugars are indeed being called by their real names and are being used for flavoring purposes in Taco Bell’s recipes, they hardly seem to be concealing much. The sugar content of every Taco Bell product is readily available in the nutrition section of the company’s website. In fact, the link to detailed nutrition information is displayed near another link leading to Taco Bell’s Diabetic Exchange, which is a system developed by dietitians to help people with diabetes manage their meal planning.
As for any other arguments over obtuse labels, Taco Bell makes sure its bases are covered in its FAQ. In response to the question of why caramel color and cocoa powder are used in Taco Bell’s dinner recipes, the FAQ explains that they’re included to help their seasoned beef maintain a rich color. Think about it, if you’re paying money for a taco, you want that taco to look its very best for you, right?
The same goes for sodium phosphates, which are covered in another question in the FAQ. Instead of making the beef look good, sodium phosphates make the beef feel good. No, not emotionally. Sodium phosphates help the beef maintain the texture that Taco Bell has determined is “right” for the palates of its guests. We’re not professional chefs, but we’ve seen them talk about the texture of food on television, so we’re going to say that this is probably a common thing for a restaurant to worry about.
Taco Bell’s Beef Ingredient & Taco Bell Meat Grade FAQ does more for consumers than addressing their concerns about the names of ingredients. It’s even helpful in ways that go beyond the fact that they can take this knowledge and apply it to other restaurants too. Taco Bell may be helping out their competition in that respect, but the company is fighting a bigger fight. It’s not only encouraging consumers to arm themselves with more knowledge of the ingredients that they consume when eating out, but it’s also daring competing restaurants to step up and explain their own ingredients.
To the average consumer, fast food items are delicious mysteries that we’d maybe rather not unravel. Taco Bell is challenging that perception of its food. That’s right, with just a single FAQ about beef, the company is challenging the rumors about its ingredients, it’s challenging its customers to ask questions, and it’s challenging our interaction with the fast food industry.
While this particular company seems to have nothing to hide, its actions do make us wonder if the minds of corporate headquarters believe they have even more than consumer trust to gain with this move. Which Taco Bell competitors would rather not have to publicly answer the simple question, “any MSG?” Which is a question on Taco Bell’s new FAQ that leads one to wonder how many of Taco Bell’s competitors could so confidently reply, “Nope, none!”