USA TODAY reported on the quiet campaign from Taco Bell to reduce the salt in menu items. It certainly is a quiet campaign when viewed alongside loud promotions for food-like stuff featuring Doritos and Fritos.
“We have done the right thing. We have done the moral thing,” proclaimed Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed. “What we haven’t done is toot our horn. No one out there suspects we have done it because we haven’t changed the taste.” Hmmm. There are lots of contradictions in Creed’s statement. The CEO said Taco Bell didn’t “toot our horn,” which implies being humble; yet he also said, “No one out there suspects…” which implies being deceitful. Is it possible to do “the moral thing” without being honest? Plus, why act with such grandiosity when “the right thing” is essentially conforming to recommended standards? Creed admits it’s tough for fast feeders to sell healthy food and make a profit. On the flipside, why should places like Taco Bell be allowed to knowingly sell unhealthy food without facing public and even legal scrutiny?
The Fourth Meal fans will undoubtedly argue that people have the inalienable right to consume whatever they wish—oblivious to the scientific evidence proving salt is addictive. Fast-food restaurants that offer healthy menu items in addition to the unhealthy fare are not much different than Big Tobacco financing anti-smoking campaigns and Big Booze financing drunk-driving campaigns. Indeed, at some point, Taco Bell and its peers should be forced to develop healthy eating campaigns—and the messages better not be quiet.
Taco Bell reduces salt in quiet campaign
By Jere Downs, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Taco Bell’s menu is packing less salt, 15 percent less on average since 2009, the result of a stealthy campaign by Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed.
“We have done the right thing. We have done the moral thing,” Creed said when asked how Yum! is responding to consumer demand for healthier fare. “What we haven’t done is toot our horn. No one out there suspects we have done it because we haven’t changed the taste.”
Taco Bell’s sodium reduction was part of a Yum effort to make 15 percent of its menu items at the chain — as well as at Pizza Hut and KFC — conform to recommended mealtime limits for it, sugar and fats by the end of the year.
And by 2020, Yum wants 20 percent of its menu items to land at or below the limits, chief nutrition officer Jonathan Blum said. The idea is that if consumers eat three meals per day, one of those three meals at a KFC, Taco Bell or Pizza Hut can satisfy one third of the recommended daily allowances.
The initiative “is a bold goal across the globe,” Blum said, adding that the objective is to reduce salt without losing flavor or market share.
“We don’t want it to be perceptible,” he said. “We just want to improve ingredients.”
The increasing public debate about the health consequences of fast food appears to be driving sodium down at other chains. At McDonald’s, for instance, the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with Cheese sandwiches have dropped their sodium levels between 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively, since 2011. Each McDonald’s burger contains five salt packets each, at 960 and 1,100 milligrams respectively.
But critics say that in some instances, Taco Bell’s efforts fall short. Even though the Steak Burrito Supreme now stands at 1,090 milligrams of sodium instead of 1,340, that much salt in a single blast is still not good for you, said Michael Jacobson, co-founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Steak Burrito Supreme “has a long way to go to get to a healthy level,” Jacobson said.
The human body requires just 200 milligrams of sodium daily to balance electrolytes and other bodily functions, according to the American Heart Association. But Americans take in 3,463 milligrams of sodium daily, or about 1½ teaspoons of salt, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Yum’s nutrition goals for 2015 and 2020 are “not terribly ambitious,” Jacobson added. “Couldn’t a restaurant have at least half of its products be reasonably healthy?
“At least nutrition is on their radar screen,” he said, adding Taco Bell’s progress is an example of “creeping awareness into the sector.”
Creed, who became Yum’s CEO following a long stint as Taco Bell’s chief, said consumers may shun foods if they are advertised as low salt or otherwise good for you.
“People don’t want the taste to change,” Creed said in an interview this month. “If I came out and said ‘new low sodium Taco Bell,’ some people will think it will taste like you know what, and they are not going to come.”
And for most diners at a Louisville-area Taco Bell on Tuesday, salt wasn’t a concern.
“I like the Gordita Crunch. The sauce is really good,” said Anthony Gardner, 26, of Radcliffe. “It tastes good, so I eat it.”
“I like the salt,” said his brother, Michael Gardner, 32, adding that the pair eat lunch at Taco Bell three or four times a month. “I will probably care about salt a little later in life.”
Exactly how and where the salt has come off Taco Bell’s menu remains a trade secret. During his tenure at the helm of Taco Bell, Creed said he scrutinized all ingredient categories.
“We pulled sodium out of everything, tortillas, beef, marinade for chicken, fire sauce,” he said. “There is not an ingredient that we haven’t pulled sodium out of.”
The numbers show Taco Bell cut salt by one third in 33 menu items between 2009 to 2015. That includes the Grilled Steak Soft Taco, which has 490 milligrams of sodium, a 31 percent decline from its 710 milligrams in 2009, and the Cheesy Bean & Rice Burrito, which has 490 milligrams of sodium, a 32 percent decrease from 1,370 six years ago.
Foods dramatically reduced in sodium at Taco Bell also seem to have a soft tortilla. They include the Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco (440 milligrams of sodium for a 27 percent drop from 600), and the Chicken Burrito, (960 milligrams of sodium, a 24 percent change from 1,260.)
And while overall progress takes place at Taco Bell, some new menu additions go the other way. The Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch line, for example, contains nearly 900 milligrams of sodium in each variation.
Blum, Yum’s nutrition chief, said high-sodium items like the Doritos Gorditas at Taco Bell, or other salty fare at KFC or Pizza Hut “are absolutely delicious and products I love to eat.” Consumers can be applauded, he added, “for the choices that they make, as long as they have the information and education about what to consume.”
Nancy Kuppersmith, a registered dietician with University of Louisville Physicians, took a more jaded view. Patients that she treats for obesity, diabetes and heart disease commonly eat fast food for one meal per day, she said. Extra sodium in fast food menus, she said, just makes them crave more than is good for them.
“It makes the food taste better if you put salt on it. It masks other flavors that might not be so good,” Kuppersmith said. “Will sodium stimulate me to eat more so I might buy more? Absolutely.”
Creed said competing against other fast food chains who may not be lowering sodium, means retaining sodium levels in some favorites while also offering a variety for consumers seeking healthier options, Creed said.
That’s why Taco Bell’s more nutrient-dense, and lower-sodium Fresco and Cantina menu options “are not the best-sellers,” Creed said. “But they need to be available.”
“Our customers are demanding it,” he said. “You don’t have to be Einstein to see this whole trend of transparency and authentic and genuine going forward.”