Taco Bell has long been a favorite restaurant of vegetarians, and for good reason: Its food is inexpensive, flavorful, and literally full of beans. The seasoned legumes are a regular protein option, which means customers can fully enjoy a real Taco Bell experience without eating animals. Vegans can do fine, too: They just need to order their food without cheese or sour cream.
Indeed, the company says that 23% of all the items it sells are vegetarian.
Estimates of how many Americans are vegetarian vary widely, from 2% to close to 20%, so regardless of what percentage is accurate, Taco Bell skews high.
The Yum Brands subsidiary is so popular among vegetarians, in fact, that animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has given the chain awards for being animal-friendly.
So it stands to reason that the Irvine, Calif.-based company would develop its own plant-based protein, and indeed it has, and it’s testing it at three locations starting today.
The new Vegan Crunchwrap is being tested at 6741 Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles, 976 6th Ave. in New York City, and 11893 East Colonial Drive in Orlando. They’ll be tested there for a week, or while supplies last, which probably will be less than a week based on past experiences.
Missy Schaaphok, Taco Bell’s director of global nutrition and sustainability, told me those markets were chosen because of the high percentage of vegans that live there. I would have guessed that about Los Angeles and New York City. Orlando is a bit of a surprise, but that’s one of the many things that makes this country great.
Schaaphok also said that the Vegan Crunchwrap isn’t just targeting vegans, but the increasing number of people who are “flexitarians,” a term I dislike that describes people who don’t necessarily eat meat at every meal.
I dislike that term because it implies that a large percentage of Americans just sit around eating meat all day, and maybe some starch. After covering food trends for a couple of decades, I’m under the impression that most Americans eat varied diets and we don’t need a term to describe that.
But it does seem to be the case that a fair number of Americans are trying to cut down on meat.
Frankly, I’m still skeptical that the plant-based meat analogs, as chain restaurant chefs tend to call them, are a necessary solution for that. As Taco Bell has proven, beans — a plant-based protein that isn’t trying to be anything but itself — is a great option for people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to eat animals during a particular meal.
So are other plants that are just being plants. At the recent National Restaurant Association Show, there were dozens of plant-based analogs for meat, fish, and dairy, but I was more intrigued by the green chickpeas, the tahini that was simply liquefied sesame seeds, the many different pickles, and items like McCain Foods’ V’DGZ (pronounced “veggies”; I have to say I’m not crazy about the name), which are breaded cauliflower and Brussels sprouts ready for frying, and corn “ribs” — cobs that are sliced lengthwise and ready to be fried (or baked, or smoked, I suppose) and slathered in barbecue sauce, or treated like the elote, the spiced corn on the cob that’s a popular Mexican street food.
And although I report on chains adding new meat analogs to their menus almost every week, they’re not as forthcoming as I’d like them to be about how well they sell.
What I hear off the record is that customers tend to try them once, find them to be, you know, okay, and then don’t try them again.
Maybe that’s why Taco Bell is proceeding with caution, with a very limited test in three markets.
Taco Bell also took its time developing it. Marissa Thiry, the chain’s senior associate manager of global nutrition & stability, led the process in developing the proprietary soy- and pea-protein based meat analog as well as the dairy free soybean oil-based blanco sauce and nacho sauce made of soybean oil and chickpea protein that are in the Vegan Crunchwrap, and it took several years.
Apart from those three new ingredients, the wrap also has lettuce and tomatoes and is wrapped in a crunchy tostada shell. I tried it last week, and meat analog skeptic though I am, it tasted like Taco Bell food. The meat felt and tasted like Taco Bell beef, and the two sauces delivered on the creamy mouthfeel that I want. Nutritionally they’re similar. The original Crunchwrap Supreme is 530 calories and the vegan version is 560 calories, a difference of about 5%, which is negligible. And they’re priced the same.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]