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Even Without Artificial Ingredients, Taco Bell Isn’t Healthy

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR

On Tuesday, Taco Bell announced that all artificial ingredients will be removed from its food by the end of this year. They’ll be replaced with unspecified “natural ingredients.” Also on-board for this health initiative is Pizza Hut, which shares an owner, Yum Brands, with Taco Bell. Pizza Hut has reportedly eliminated artificial trans fats and MSG from its offerings and will ditch artificial flavors and colors from its pizzas by the end of July.

A few caveats: Taco Bell will only be removing artificial ingredients from foods that aren’t co-branded. So that Dorito Locos taco and Cap’n Crunch Delights doughnut holes? They will still be loaded up with high-fructose corn syrup. Same goes for beverages: if you order a 20 oz. Mountain Dew Baja Blast along with your now-natural taco, you’ll still be guzzling 73 grams of sugar in a drink that lists high fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient.

However, you’ll no longer be getting artificial dye Yellow No. 6 in your nacho cheese, nor will Blue No. 1 brighten your avocado ranch dressing. The pigment carmine will be absent from red tortilla strips.

That all sounds like good news. And the fact that Taco Bell would brag about such relatively small changes is a revealing one, not because of what they’re saying but because of why they’re saying it: people want “natural” food right now, even though the word “natural” is slippery at best and “artificial” ingredients are not, by default, dangerous to consume.

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What’s the science on these artificial dyes Taco Bell promises to scrub from the menu? Is this good health, or just good PR?

According to John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State and chair of the Ingredients as Materials Impact Group, “I think it is a fairly superficial thing that they’re doing,” he said by phone. Then again, “It’s hard to say food is worse for taking colored dyes out of it.”

Coupland allowed that there is “some evidence” that the color additives Taco Bell is banning “can be associated with behavioral problems in some populations of children,” but “it’s not enough that the FDA thought it was worth banning these things.”

What would be a mistake “would be if people suddenly decide, ‘Oh look! This food is much, much healthier now! I should eat there five times a week.’ It’s not like it’s healthy food. It’s pizza, tacos, nachos.”

Let’s not convince ourselves that by taking these small molecules out of the nacho cheese we’ve suddenly made it healthy.

Remember earlier this month, when Chipotle announced it would remove all genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from its food? Well, according to over 16 major international science organizations, there is zero scientific basis for concern over GMOs. GMOs are fundamentally harmless — and, to poor people living in parts of the world where it is currently near-impossible to grow crops, potentially quite helpful — and yet the idea of removing this unnatural-sounding substance from the food we consume sounds like progress. In trumpeting this anti-GMO stance as a pro-health initiative, Chipotle will, as Jesse Singal at Science of Us wrote, “cement false ideas about GMOs in the public imagination.”

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While these changes at Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are not especially meaningful from a health perspective, “it’s more the sociology than the chemistry that’s exciting for me,” said Coupland. “There seems to be so much more demand now around this idea of naturalness.” He added that whenever he uses the word natural, he wants to put it in inverted commas; basically, we are caught up in the idea of a thing being “natural” without really investigating what that means, or if it’s inherently better than something “unnatural.” “Foods can take on these health halos, the idea that because a food is good in one respect, it’s good in all respects.”

“I don’t see us having a revolution in public health here. I don’t think we’ll look back at this as the era where diabetes passed, where the obesity epidemic passed, like this is the turning point,” he said.

When you see all these major food chains getting in on that “healthy” and “natural” #branding, what you’re really seeing is the change in “the aesthetic preferences of the buying public,” said Coupland. “In the 1970s, people really wanted cheese to glow yellow. In the current decade, people are more comfortable with the idea that things don’t have to be that bright-as-possible color. To a previous generation, it would scream: ‘Good! Vibrant! Healthy!’ To the current generation, it screams’ ‘Chemical! Artificial!’”

“If you were a public health campaigner, you’d be saying, ‘People would do better to eat more vegetables and less of other stuff,’” said Coupland. “But it would be far harder for a company like Taco Bell or Pizza Hut to do that.”

So subtracting the additives: not a big deal. What is worth noting, though buried in the middle of the official press release, is that, since 2009, Taco Bell has reduced sodium across the menu by 15 percent. In 33 menu items, salt was cut by as much as one-third. Taco Bell hasn’t exactly gone around shouting that news from the rooftops, probably so salt-loving customers aren’t scared away from the chain. In January, Yum chief nutrition officer Jonathan Blum told USA Today with regard to the sodium change, “We don’t want it to be perceptible,” and that the goal would be to maintain taste while reducing salt levels behind the scenes.

Taco Bell’s conundrum, then, as summed up by Coupland: “What can you do which can make your food a little bit better but doesn’t really undermine the core reasons people go to your restaurant?”

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For consumers, the important thing to remember is that Taco Bell is still exactly what you think it is: cheap fast food that is not actually good for you.

As Coupland put it, “Let’s not convince ourselves that by taking these small molecules out of the nacho cheese we’ve suddenly made it healthy.”