In 2011, an Alabama law firm filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell, claiming that the “seasoned beef” in its tacos and burritos was only 35 percent beef. The fast-food chain fired back by stating that the meat product was actually 88 percent beef—and this week, Taco Bell has gone on the offensive by explaining in great detail what the ingredients in that other 12 percent actually are.
In a new page on the “Nutrition” section of its website, Taco Bell takes a faux-conversational tone to address such questions/exclamations as “Potassium chloride sounds like something from a science experiment, not a taco beef recipe!” and “Caramel color and cocoa powder? Those sound like they belong in desserts!” (The answer to the latter begins, “They probably do!” and then goes on to explain that the cocoa “helps our seasoned beef maintain a rich color.”) The proliferation of exclamation points and the forced lightheartedness give the impression that Taco Bell is feeling defensive about its seasoned beef but trying really hard not to sound defensive.
But Taco Bell shouldn’t be defensive about the fact that its seasoned beef is only 88 percent beef. It should be proud. And Taco Bell and other fast-food chains should use more fillers in their meat products, not less.
Most fast-food meat is very low quality—one study of fast-food hamburgers found that they contained connective tissue, blood vessels, peripheral nerves, adipose tissue, cartilage, and bone along with muscle tissue. To mask the flavor of peripheral nerves, fast-food meat is heavily seasoned, as Taco Bell’s seasoned beef exemplifies. (Taco Bell’s new explainer page insists that they use “only USDA-inspected, 100% premium real beef, period”—but that’s a meaningless phrase. All meat sold in the U.S. is USDA-inspected, and “premium” doesn’t have an official meaning as a meat label; it’s just marketing-speak.) When you bite into a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, you’re mainly tasting “grill seasoning” and condiments, not beef; when you taste a Burger King chicken nugget—the third ingredient of which is “isolated oat product”—you’re tasting salt and artificial flavorings.
It follows that if fast food chains kept their proprietary seasonings but replaced some of the animal ingredients with plant proteins like seitan, texturized vegetable protein, and Quorn, the taste wouldn’t change discernibly. Vegetarian meat substitutes are mild enough in flavor to be able to blend in with the low-quality beef and chicken in your average fast-food sandwich. Most fake meat isn’t identical to meat in texture (although more convincing ones are invented every year), but when you’re making a chicken nugget, a hamburger patty, or seasoned taco meat, texture doesn’t matter that much. Fast food meat is already highly processed, and I defy you to tell the difference in texture between a real chicken patty and a Gardein chicken patty.
Why should we want to substitute plant protein for some of the real meat in fast food meals? Because it would make a huge difference in terms of environmental degradation, public health, climate change, and animal welfare. Half of Americans eat fast food weekly, and fast food accounts for 11 percent of adults’ daily calorie intake. (I couldn’t find comparable global statistics, but American fast food chains are expanding quickly in China, India, and other newly industrialized countries.)
The demands of fast food chains have an enormous impact on agricultural production, and if fast-food chains started demanding half as much factory-farm meat, factory farms would have to scale back production considerably. Factory farms pollute the environment, torture animals, and overuse antibiotics, so the fewer of them there are, the better. And beef production in particular is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, so less beef in your burger translates to lower carbon emissions. (This is to say nothing of the potential health benefits that consumers would enjoy if they ate less meat.)
If fast food leaders like McDonald’s and Taco Bell started replacing half of their meat with vegetable protein, they could potentially slow global warming, reduce the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and prevent animal suffering—all without significantly diminishing the flavor of their products. It would be the winningest win-win in the history of winning.
So I say: Bravo, Taco Bell, on making your seasoned beef only 88 percent meat. Add even more filler, and you just might save the world.