(Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)
Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
Taco Bell - long-known as a place to load up on low-price, high-calorie and high-sodium grub - wants to fix the high-calorie and high-sodium part.
By 2020, that is.
The nation's largest Mexican fast-food chain on Wednesday announced new nutritional plans to have 20% of its combo meals (a main item, a side dish and a beverage) meet one-third of the federal government's recommended dietary guidelines by 2020. One-third was chosen because the guidelines are based on an average three meals consumed daily.
The move comes at a time legislators, activists and parents are pushing the fast food giants to offer more better-for-you choices. At the same time more Millennials, Taco Bell's key target, also are choosing better-for-you options sold at places like Chipotle and Panera Bread.
"Our customer tastes and needs are evolving," says Greg Creed, CEO at Taco Bell. "They want more balanced options."
As a result, says Creed, new products developed at Taco Bell going forward will have to meet entirely new criteria. In the past, besides the taste, the key criteria has been the cost of the ingredients. Going forward, he says, the product also will be matched up against the chain's new nutritional goals - and it might not be developed if it doesn't meet those goals.
One nutritionist, while impressed by the effort, is entirely baffled by it.
"Does anyone actually go to Taco Bell who is worried about calories or sodium?" poses Robyn Flipse, a registered dietian and nutritionist. "I think their target is looking for something that is convenient, low-cost and fills them up."
Nearly two decades ago - long before better-for-you eating was a fad -Taco Bell rolled-out a so-called "Border Lights" menu of lower-calories items that generated lots of publicity but ultimately failed. The question is: Will history repeat itself?
Taco Bell executives insist that better-for-you food doesn't have to compromise taste. For example, the chain has quietly reduced sodium in its product line an average 20% over the past few years, says Missy Schaaphok, nutritionist in the product development department.
Taco Bell hopes to test a range of new, better-for-you products later this year and begin launching some nationally in 2014, Creed says. He declined to describe any of the upcoming products.
Even then, Taco Bell has lots of catching-up to do. Just one order of its Volcano Nachos currently comes stuffed with a whopping 970 calories, 58 grams of fat and 1670 milligrams of sodium.
That's probably not going away any time soon. But the chain will do a better job of balance - including promoting its Fresco menu, which allows customers, at no additional cost, to substitute pico de gallo for sauces and cheeses, says Creed.
Even then, Flipse, the nutritionist, is mystified. "I just don't see anything that supports that people go to Taco Bell wishing it was a little healthier."