Taco Bell Corp. pledged Tuesday to remove all artificial colors and flavors from most of its menu items, as well as certain additives, added trans fats, palm oil and high-fructose corn syrup, by the end of 2015.
The move to more natural ingredients comes in response to consumer demand, and is part of a larger effort to simplify and be more transparent about the menu, said Brian Niccol, CEO of the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service operator.
Consumers are “telling us less is más when it comes to ingredients,” Niccol said.
“But as we evolve with what our customers are curious about, or asking us in terms of transparency, we won’t waver from being affordable, craveable and Mexican-inspired,” he added. “That’s who we are and what we do, and that’s why they love us.”
Taco Bell’s menu changes have been going on quietly behind the scenes for a couple of years, Niccol said. The chain has reduced sodium in food by 15 percent since 2008, and flavorings like monosodium glutamate and preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, have already been eliminated where possible.
But after the rollout of its mobile app last year, Niccol said company officials noticed that consumers were interested in learning more about the ingredients in Taco Bell’s food.
The app’s nutrition calculator page is the second-most visited by users, after the restaurant locator page, said Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief food innovation officer.
“We know people want to feel good about what they’re eating,” Matthews said. “They want simpler labels and they want to understand their food.”
The commitment to more natural ingredients will impact about 95 percent of the menu, although not in ways that consumers will notice in terms of flavor, she said.
For instance, recipes that once used artificial black pepper flavoring will use natural black pepper, and caramel coloring will be replaced with a natural alternative, Matthews said.
The process is ongoing. By the end of 2017, Taco Bell will remove more artificial preservatives and additives where possible, Matthews said.
The effort, however, is limited to food for now, and does not include beverages or co-branded items.
Not included in the initiative is the Freeze beverage platform, with its vibrant hues not commonly found in nature, as well as the popular Doritos Locos Tacos line, with its Doritos-flavored taco shells that include monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors and colorings like Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. That ingredient list is fully disclosed on the chain’s website.
As part of the transparency initiative, Taco Bell reworked its website, which is also accessible on smartphones, with updated ingredient statements and an improved nutrition calculator.
Working with a regulatory consultant, the goal was to provide nutritional data in a way that’s similar to the nutrition labels consumers are used to seeing in grocery stores, Matthews said.
Appealing to vegetarians
The chain is also looking to better communicate menu options available for consumers who follow various lifestyles when it comes to diet.
Taco Bell has long appealed to vegetarians, for example, because of its bean and cheese options, and the chain carries items that would appeal to those avoiding carbs or gluten, or looking for items lower in calories and fat.
“We have a lot of choices, but we need to do a better job of communicating that,” Matthews said.
The transparency effort was not related to the Food and Drug Administration’s upcoming menu labeling requirements, Matthews said, although the chain plans to fully comply with those mandates.
“This is really about listening to our customers,” she said. “This is where they’re going. They want things simpler and cleaner. For us to be a modern fast-food company, we have to move with them as well.”
Niccol said the changes will not impact Taco Bell’s value positioning.
“The goal we set is not to change our position of being a value leader,” he said. “We think what’s important is giving everybody access to the food they crave. We are always dealing with inflationary pressure, and our job is to figure out how to handle it.”
Taco Bell joins a growing number of limited-service chains that have put a focus on ingredients in recent weeks.
Panera Bread Co. is in the process of removing artificial additives from its food, and recently issued a “No No List” of ingredients that it has removed or plans to remove from recipes.
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has removed most genetically modified ingredients from its food, and also pledged to rid the menu of artificial ingredients. And McDonald’s Corp. is moving toward using chicken raised without human antibiotics.
Taco Bell’s parent company, Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., has also made a commitment to reduce the use of palm oil, an ingredient that has been tied to habitat destruction and deforestation, across its three brands, including Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Taco Bell, however, is developing its own brand-specific goals, Matthews said.
GMOs do not appear to be an issue for Taco Bell customers, she noted.
However, the company is talking to suppliers about the use of antibiotic-free meat, although that is a more complex supply issue, said Amy Kavanaugh, Taco Bell’s chief public affairs officer.
“We are going to have a point of view, but we won’t jump at a solution until we’re really clear on what the overarching impact is,” Kavanaugh said. “We have to look at public health, we have to look at animal welfare, we have to look across all sustainability pillars before we can go out and make a claim or push our suppliers in a particular direction. So watch this space.”