With the hullabaloo surrounding labeling food products that has escalated over the years, many consumers want to know what’s really in their food. Some trust the government to oversee the safety of what they buy. When you’re in the supermarket, every item is required to list its ingredients and some nutrition facts.
But what about food you eat from fast food restaurants? Meal ingredients are often much more opaque than transparent. For those that do provide full ingredient listings on their websites, not many people bother to look.
Taco Bell, which is owned by PepsiCo, is a huge corporation comprised of 5600 restaurants and 150,000 employees. In 2011, it was sued for its marketing of “seasoned ground beef” in its products—it was found that only 35 percent of the “ground beef” was really meat; this doesn’t meet the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) labeling standard. The rest of it was filler and “enhancers”. The restaurant chain didn’t change its recipe but it did agree to disclose the ingredients that constitute the other 65 percent—the “seasoning”, as it were.
A current advertisement with “real Taco Bell employees” as spokespeople asserts that the ground beef they use is 88 percent “premium” beef and 12 percent “signature recipe”. “Premium” isn’t a grade defined by the USDA.
So where’s the beef? Tucked under “other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency, and quality of our seasoned beef.” That would be lovely if they were herbs and spices, however, you probably don’t have many of the items in your pantry—things like trehalose, torula yeast, lactic acid, sodium phosphates, and disodium guanylate.
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Restaurant chains are expected to serve food that is consistent in taste and texture—it’s part of what customers buy when they go to a recognized name; they want to know that the burrito they get in Texas will taste the same as the one in Oregon. The balancing of additives to meat helps to achieve that. When the main ingredient of your beef burrito isn’t beef, however, you should know what else is in there.
Here are some of the other “seasonings” and what Taco Bell has to say about their inclusion in its ground beef mixture:
Oats – “The very small percentage of oats is used to help our seasoned beef stay moist.”
Cellulose – “You’ll find it in everything from cheese and vitamins to bread and pasta.” [Cellulose is a wood by-product.]
Artificial flavor – “Added to enhance the taste.”
Soy lecithin – “It helps to bind substances that would otherwise separate—like oil and water. It’s a common ingredient in many grocery staples, like chocolate bars and salad dressings.”
Potassium chloride – “Well, potassium chloride is a common salt substitute used in the food industry. We actually used it to help reduce the amount of salt used in our seasoned beef recipe, which is part of our ongoing effort to reduce sodium levels in our ingredients while still delivering the same great taste you expect from us.”
Maltodextrin – “It sounds weird, but it’s actually a form of mildly sweet sugar we use to balance the flavor.”
Modified corn starch – “We use a small amount as a thickener and to maintain moisture in our seasoned beef. It’s common in many foods, like yogurt.”
Citric acid – “We use a small percentage in our overall recipe to add brighter flavor.”
Caramel color and cocoa powder – “Caramel color is carmelized sugar, which is a commonly used food coloring. Cocoa powder doesn’t add any flavor to our recipe, but it helps our seasoned beef maintain a rich color.”
While these don’t sound particularly threatening, they are only some of the many ingredients in what is sold as beef. Others are not so seemingly benign. The victory here lies in Taco Bell’s agreement to provide a full listing of the ingredients found in all its menu items. You can now educate yourself on what you are eating before you order your next Mexican-style dish.