And because we know you’re wondering, the change won’t apply to beverages or “co-branded” products such as the infamous Doritos taco line.
“People haven’t slowed down, and more than ever want quality and convenience,” Brian Niccol, the CEO of Taco Bell Corp, said in a statement. “They are seeking more information and a variety of options they can customize to meet their lifestyle, without giving up the flavors they love or the innovative food they expect at Taco Bell.”
He added: “They’re also telling us less is más when it comes to ingredients, so we’re simplifying with natural alternatives and staying true to who we are and what makes us unique.”
Put another way, this change in consumer preference for more “natural” ingredients is more style than substance.
Both restaurants, which are owned by Yum! Brands, have realized that consumers (rightfully) don’t understand why “black pepper flavor,” a component of Taco Bell’s ground beef seasoning recipe, can’t just be “black pepper.”
Of course, none of this is to be confused with consumers asking the companies to dramatically alter the caloric, sugar or fat content of what you might get at their restaurants.
This is something Taco Bell knows well. Years ago, when the brand revealed that its “ground beef” was 88 percent beef and 12 percent “other,” consumers responded with a proverbial yawn.
“Obviously you know it’s not 100 percent organic food,” a young Taco Bell customer, Bethany Weis, told the Los Angeles Times back in 2011. “I know it’s not good for me. I still like it.”
The “other” in this case is a somewhat proprietary mix of preservatives and seasonings that are both common in processed foods and also safe — including that aforementioned “black pepper flavor.”
So why did the company change its tune?
For starters, having to explaining to consumers what “trehalose” is seems like a bad marketing strategy. (It’s a “naturally occurring sugar that we use to improve the taste of our seasoned beef,” the company said.)
It is far easier to just tell people what they’re actually eating in terms they can understand.
That doesn’t necessarily change the healthfulness of the food they’re eating; but it does give consumers a sense of control over what they consume.
“Today’s customers are more curious and interested about food than ever,” noted Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief food innovation officer. “They want to understand what they’re eating and expect to know more about it.”
Responding to that desire by simply releasing a laundry list of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients produces almost comical results, as McDonald’s learned the hard way with its 19-ingredient french fry explainer.
And as with a lot of things in the world of fast casual food, all roads seem to inevitably lead to Chipotle. The make-your-own Mexican-style food brand has single-handedly brought the menu transparency movement into the mainstream, whether its competitors like it or not.
For example, in anticipation of growing consumer concern, Chipotle began labeling Genetically Modified ingredients on its menu in 2013. This month, it announced that it would eliminate them from the menu altogether.
While that move has been criticized from a heath standpoint, it is probably a solid business strategy .
Some 70 percent of Americans said they viewed GMOs as at least being a moderately serious problem in a 2014 survey. That’s compared to the the view of organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization, which have said that they don’t pose a significant health risk.
When it comes to health — and even the environment — greater attention to things like portion size and meat consumption would probably do consumers at least as much good.