Taco Bell has done many amazing things. It added Doritos flavor to its taco shells. It folded a syrupy breakfast taco into a waffle shell, and later a biscuit. It wrapped a burrito inside a quesadilla and dubbed it the Quesarito. Then it used Cap'N Crunch Berries cereal to create a rainbow-colored donut hole. If there was a word to describe such flavor blasted franken-foods, "natural" wouldn't be one of them.
So as other fast food chains made questionable commitments to making their menus healthier and removing unpronounceable ingredients from their food, you might have thought that Taco Bell would hold out, embrace its fast food roots, and admit that it doesn't give a crap about your diet. Because you never ate a Quesarito for your health.
But you'd be wrong.
Taco Bell today announced a new set of standards for ingredients that will remove artificial colors, flavors, added trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, or "unsustainable" palm oil in its food by the end of 2015. "In all cases, they will be replaced with natural alternatives," the company said in a release. That's right, natural.
Taco Bell "is committed to being a brand that people can truly champion and trust," CEO Brian Niccol told BuzzFeed News. While some of the replacement ingredients will cost more, the chain is not increasing menu prices.
But there are some very significant exceptions. Most importantly, the changes won't affect beverages and co-branded items, so while artificial colors may be out of most foods, Doritos Locos Tacos and Cap'N Crunch donut holes will be keeping Taco Bell's menus bright.
Pizza Hut, which like Taco Bell is owned by Yum Brands, also announced today that it plans to remove artificial flavors and colors from its pizzas by the end of July. The company said it has already removed all artificial trans fats and MSG from its food.
The two companies join other fast food giants that have recently tried to jump about the natural food bandwagon by cleaning up their ingredients. Subway has removed medium chain triglycerides from its chicken and azodicarbonamide from its breads. In May, Panera Bread released a list of "unacceptable" ingredients, what it calls a "No No List," that will be removed from menus by the end of 2016.
Not all of the banned ingredients are bad for health, even if they sound like they are. John Coupland, professor of food science at Penn State, said "I don't think it's likely having an impact on the nutritional quality of the food you're eating." He said while there's an increasing amount of chemophobia today, artificial ingredients aren't categorically worse, or better, for health than natural ingredients.
Liz Matthews, Taco Bell's Chief Food Innovation Officer, steered clear of arguing about the health impact of the new ingredient standards. "There are things that are good and things that are bad, and that's not for us to debate," she said. "We're just here to listen to our customers and they want less in their food and they want simpler ingredients and that's what we're doing."
Niccol and Matthews said Taco Bell has stealthily been making healthy improvements to its menu for 10 years, for example by reducing sodium, but hasn't been marketing it.
"We want to make sure the replacements aren't sacrificing anything for our customers, because we know they come to us for the experience and bold flavors," said Matthews. That's the priority, naturally.