Taco Bell’s Seasoned Meat Is Only 88 Percent Beef. It Should Be Way, Way Less.

Slate's Culture Blog
May 1 2014 9:10 AM

Taco Bell’s Seasoned Meat Is Only 88 Percent Beef. It Should Be Way, Way Less.

72763825-new-hyde-park-united-states-a-united-states-flag-flies
Taco Bell adds tons of non-meat ingredients to its meat. Good for Taco Bell!

Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, an Alabama law firm filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell, claiming that the “seasoned beef” in its tacos and burritos was only 35 percent beef. The fast-food chain fired back by stating that the meat product was actually 88 percent beef—and this week, Taco Bell has gone on the offensive by explaining in great detail what the ingredients in that other 12 percent actually are.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

In a new page on the “Nutrition” section of its website, Taco Bell takes a faux-conversational tone to address such questions/exclamations as “Potassium chloride sounds like something from a science experiment, not a taco beef recipe!” and “Caramel color and cocoa powder? Those sound like they belong in desserts!” (The answer to the latter begins, “They probably do!” and then goes on to explain that the cocoa “helps our seasoned beef maintain a rich color.”) The proliferation of exclamation points and the forced lightheartedness give the impression that Taco Bell is feeling defensive about its seasoned beef but trying really hard not to sound defensive.

Advertisement

But Taco Bell shouldn’t be defensive about the fact that its seasoned beef is only 88 percent beef. It should be proud. And Taco Bell and other fast-food chains should use more fillers in their meat products, not less.

Most fast-food meat is very low quality—one study of fast-food hamburgers found that they contained connective tissue, blood vessels, peripheral nerves, adipose tissue, cartilage, and bone along with muscle tissue. To mask the flavor of peripheral nerves, fast-food meat is heavily seasoned, as Taco Bell’s seasoned beef exemplifies. (Taco Bell’s new explainer page insists that they use “only USDA-inspected, 100% premium real beef, period”—but that’s a meaningless phrase. All meat sold in the U.S. is USDA-inspected, and “premium” doesn’t have an official meaning as a meat label; it’s just marketing-speak.) When you bite into a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, you’re mainly tasting “grill seasoning” and condiments, not beef; when you taste a Burger King chicken nugget—the third ingredient of which is “isolated oat product”—you’re tasting salt and artificial flavorings.

It follows that if fast food chains kept their proprietary seasonings but replaced some of the animal ingredients with plant proteins like seitan, texturized vegetable protein, and Quorn, the taste wouldn’t change discernibly. Vegetarian meat substitutes are mild enough in flavor to be able to blend in with the low-quality beef and chicken in your average fast-food sandwich. Most fake meat isn’t identical to meat in texture (although more convincing ones are invented every year), but when you’re making a chicken nugget, a hamburger patty, or seasoned taco meat, texture doesn’t matter that much. Fast food meat is already highly processed, and I defy you to tell the difference in texture between a real chicken patty and a Gardein chicken patty.

Why should we want to substitute plant protein for some of the real meat in fast food meals? Because it would make a huge difference in terms of environmental degradation, public health, climate change, and animal welfare. Half of Americans eat fast food weekly, and fast food accounts for 11 percent of adults’ daily calorie intake. (I couldn’t find comparable global statistics, but American fast food chains are expanding quickly in China, India, and other newly industrialized countries.)

The demands of fast food chains have an enormous impact on agricultural production, and if fast-food chains started demanding half as much factory-farm meat, factory farms would have to scale back production considerably. Factory farms pollute the environment, torture animals, and overuse antibiotics, so the fewer of them there are, the better. And beef production in particular is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, so less beef in your burger translates to lower carbon emissions. (This is to say nothing of the potential health benefits that consumers would enjoy if they ate less meat.)

If fast food leaders like McDonald’s and Taco Bell started replacing half of their meat with vegetable protein, they could potentially slow global warming, reduce the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and prevent animal suffering—all without significantly diminishing the flavor of their products. It would be the winningest win-win in the history of winning.

So I say: Bravo, Taco Bell, on making your seasoned beef only 88 percent meat. Add even more filler, and you just might save the world.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.