What's In Taco Bell's 'Meat' Anyway?

A few years back, Taco Bell was in the crosshairs of a lawsuit alleging they were falsely advertising, specifically their claim that the "seasoned beef" in their various offerings was actually beef. The lawsuit stated that only 35% of the ingredients was actually beef, the other 65% some unknown mixture of mystery. Taco Bell retorted by saying that no, in fact, their products contained 88% of pure, unadulterated beef!

Which quickly led to the question: what was that other 12%?

Story continues below

This week, Taco Bell revealed that answer, and a whole lot more, in the redesigned Beef Ingredient FAQ on their website. Throughout the clickable explanations, Taco Bell utilizes a loose approach to answering the questions, perhaps to keep the topic from seeming too serious. Meaning, the questions are phrased in ways like, "Modified corn starch seems weird." and "Isn't cellulose a fancy term for wood?" Filter through the informal prose, however, and there are a few actual explanations hidden inside.

For instance:

- Potassium Chloride is used "to help reduce the amount of salt used in our seasoned beef recipe."
- Modified Corn Starch is used "as a thickener and to maintain moisture in our seasoned beef."
- Soy Lecithin "helps (with moisture) to bind substances that would otherwise separate - like oil and water."
- Cocoa Powder "helps our seasoned beef maintain a rich color."
- Trehalose is "naturally occurring sugar that we use to improve the taste of our seasoned beef."

And so on and so forth. There are another 23 ingredients in their beef seasoning recipe, things named Torula Yeast, Disodium Inosinate, and "Natural Smoke Flavor," the latter of which they perhaps intentionally don't address seeing as some consider it to be toxic. But all of those they highlight are considered safe according to the FDA, and registered dieticians and chemists also give them a thumbs up.

But perhaps all these explanations are missing the point. Maybe Taco Bell shouldn't feel defensive because they have to explain the other 12%. Maybe they should, instead, work towards raising the percentage of non-beef in their beef.

Have you ever had one of their seven-layer bean burritos? Here's a spoiler: It tastes just like anything else they sell. And it also contains no meat at all!

Let's be honest: No one's going to Taco Bell for their meat. The flavor isn't there, it's in their tortillas and sour cream and cheese and tomatoes and lettuce and that packet of Mild sauce you drunkenly tear open with your teeth to layer on top. Their website brags about how they "buy about 300 million pounds" of beef every year, and since they buy in such bulk they're "able to secure some of the best prices, which we pass along to you." But, frankly, if you're buying that much beef, it's not going to be high quality.

Instead, what Taco Bell needs to do is continue to add more vegetable protein, and filler into their product to lower the amount of "real beef" in there. With enough hard work and ingenuity, they can get to that 35% we all thought they were. If our massive meat consumption is harming the environment, there's no better way to cut down than by having one of the global leaders in buying lower the amount they use. They could even pretend they have the environment in mind! Win-win!

And if not, well, maybe we should continue taking advice from the great Neil Hamburger, and just completely stay away.

Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading