What is a Dietitian Doing Working at Taco Bell?

Taco Bell HQ

We’ll answer that question shortly. First some background.

Last week we had an interesting opportunity to visit the corporate headquarters of Taco Bell. We don’t eat there, nor do we recommend Taco Bell’s food to the Fooducate community.

However, millions of Americans eat there, every day. So when Missy Nelson, Taco Bell’s head dietitian, reached out and invited us to come visit and see firsthand some innovations, we agreed. We flew down to Orange County, California on our own dime; Fooducate did not receive any compensation to visit or write about Taco Bell. This was all about curiosity, keeping an open mind, and wanting to learn.

Taco Bell History Murals

Arriving at Taco Bell headquarters, we were greeted by Missy and two Taco Bell PR executives. Before we could talk about nutrition and ask some hard questions, we were walked through the history hall, where murals hang depicting company milestones.  Here are some stats:

  • Glen Bell founded Taco Bell after he realized his burger joint could not compete with McDonald’s.
  • Today Taco Bell has 6,500 branches, almost all in the US.
  • 85 percent of the locations are franchises.
  • 165,000 “team members” work for Taco Bell. Many are teens (but less than 50%)
  • Taco Bell serves 36,000,000 people every week.
  • 70% of orders are drive through.
  • The main demographic is aged 18-34, almost equal male/female.
  • Taco Bell known as a late night brand, with locations opened past midnight.
  • Taco Bell was the first quick serve restaurant to offer free refills. (How much of an effect did that have on the obesity situation in America. . . ?)

Now back to the question at hand – Why a dietitian at Taco Bell?

Missy explained that if she were to open a private practice, she could influence the lives of hundreds of people, but just one change at Taco Bell can have an impact on millions.

What kind of changes?

  • A gradual 20% sodium reduction over the last 6 years. Taco Bell is continually working to reduce this number even more.
  • Creating a minimum nutrition standard for all Taco Bell suppliers.
  • Making guacamole a standard addition to menu items. Aside from the southwest, Taco Bell had to “educate” many consumers to learn to enjoy avocado.
  • Removal of trans-fats from all menu items (except for 2 desserts).
  • Removal of palm oil from ingredients (a work in progress).
  • Addition of healthier menu items such as the Cantina Bell

Taco Bell Test kitchen

We were shown the innovation kitchen, where Missy works with chefs and marketing people to come up with new products. A recent example is the Waffle Taco, a breakfast item that took about a year to develop.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a sensory lab where consumer panelists try new items and then respond to questions, classic marketing research.

Sensory room

After taking a look at the facilities, we sat down with the head chef Heather, Missy, and the PR team for a bit of Q&A:

Fooducate: Why can’t you change like Chipotle and improve your ingredients?
Taco Bell: Like most quick serve restaurants, we are based on value and convenience. Chipotle is not. (Our translation: You can’t expect quality ingredients when your customer demographic values low prices and taste over nutrition and sustainability.)

Fooducate: Why aren’t there any turkey products at taco Bell?
Taco Bell: The customer isn’t ready yet, but maybe in the future.

Fooducate: What are you doing to reduce sugary drink consumption?
Taco Bell: Like sodium reduction, this is a journey. We offer sweetened zero calorie and medium calorie options, as well as non-sweetened brewed iced-tea. At the end of the day, we need to serve what our customers want.

Fooducate: Do you sell energy drinks?
Taco Bell: No. (This is interesting because the core customer demographic is a big energy drink consumer).

Fooducate: Why is Taco Bell adding hours and opening up for breakfast?
Taco Bell: We realized that there is an opportunity to serve our customers in the early a.m. hours with breakfast options. This move will add 3 to 4 new jobs at each location!

Fooducate: You emphasize bringing value to all your stakeholders. Why not increase your employee’s wages to something that they can actually live off?
(We did not get a straight answer to this question.)

So…what have we learned from this visit?

Corporations may be evil, but people are nice. All the people working at Taco Bell’s headquarters (or as they call it, restaurant support center) seem to be enjoying their work and believe they are contributing to continual improvement.

Yet despite the well-intentioned work of Missy and other dietitians at fast food establishments, improvements in the menu items only manage to take them up a tiny notch – from unhealthy to slightly less unhealthy. Whether this is a worthwhile pursuit can be debated. A systemic approach to food production and consumption is beyond the scope of any single dietitian.

While an occasional outing to Taco Bell won’t kill anyone, it’s healthier to eat as many home cooked meals as possible. That is not something any fast food chain would like you to do.

Get Fooducated

  • Aria Gonzalez

    Question. What’s wrong with palm oil?

    • kemla

      http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php

      “The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production.”

      • Mike

        For of all, there are sustainably produced palm oil products; consumers simply need to be mindful about what they’re buying.

        Secondly, I highly doubt this has anything to do with why the Taco Bell dietitian lists “removal of palm oil” as a positive change made by the company. It’s more likely that Taco Bell is playing into the public’s fears of saturated fats when it boasts this particular change, which is unfounded and dumb but not very surprising.

  • http://www.thehealthbank.co.uk/ Martina Watts

    This story is rather more encouraging than that of those dietitians employed by (and educated by) Coca-Cola who still insist that 42tsp added sugar in a Big-Gulp cinema sized cola is fine”in moderation as part of a balanced diet”. The 20% reduction in added salt over 6 years is certainly a lot better than nothing. The problem remains though that “if you sup with the Devil, you need a long spoon”, and Missy is effectively lending her credentials to an organisation which is resisting healthy food regulations.

    • Audrey

      True! Fooducate is being overly pessimistic on this one. “Less unhealthy” is making a difference!

  • daniellaf

    I love Fooducates honesty and sincere curiosity – no agenda. Missy should go improve the individual lives of people that want/need a change. The small changes she is making to Taco Bell still is not educating the consumer. They don’t care enough to appreciate the effort.

    • JKern

      Daniel, you sorely underestimate the impact Missy is having. It is way more than she could do in private practice. You have a common elitist attitude that policymakers should not care about people who would sully themselves by eating at a Taco Bell. The “they” you talk about certainly include people who have the resources and knowledge to eat better foods, but “they” also include plenty of people who may not have the same choices for access to food.

      The fact is there is a place in the market for Taco Bell — there is demand for these products, which are inexpensive, convenient, taste good (enough) to those who buy them. If the company can reformulate to be a little more healthy (or less bad, you choose which end of the telescope to look through), then that’s a great thing.

      • Dani

        But the changes are so small I’m not sure how much it’s helping. Who knows?

        • JKern

          Dani, small change is what consumers and their taste buds will accept. Small changes add up. And, yeah, to your other comment — people do need to learn about new foods. Not everyone is familiar with “nature’s butter” Sheesh.

          • daniellaf

            Jkern – You’re saying I have an “elitist” attitude, meanwhile you are the one talking down to me. If you want to educate others with the knowledge you have, then you should inform on an equal level, not make me feel like I know nothing.

            If we didn’t all have different opinions then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to discuss different possibilities and show both sides of situations.

            My point was that if we are going to make these changes to large food chains (which I COMPLETELY agree with making healthy changes, big or small) then we should also educate the consumer. Do you think the majority of people buying Taco Bell knew about these healthy changes and WHY they were happening? I didn’t until I read this article. My point wasn’t to take away healthy changes to fast food, it was to educate the consumer while we do it.

          • Dani

            “Sheesh”?! Really? No need for that. I was simply saying why would anyone have to be coaxed to eat something so delicious. It was tongue in cheek. Relax.

  • Dani

    That’s insane that most people need to be “educated” to enjoy avocado. Doesn’t nature’s butter speak for itself?

  • Karrina Chiusa

    I find it kinda annoying that fooducate keeps saying Taco Bell is really unhealthy, like the fresco menu isn’t that bad? Right? I love Taco Bell and always get the fresco crunchy tacos

  • Michael Heffez

    To me that answer was completely RIDICULOUS! To accommodate the low income, impoverished individuals, you open up a fast food restaurant that is the equivalent to nuclear radiation exposure? Any meal you eat at Taco Bell will greatly increase your chances of getting some form of cancer or disease. Poor people can very well eat healthy meals which they enjoy, and at affordable prices! Why exploit them? That bizarre comment is like saying we will conveniently open up crack houses and diligently market them in order for us to benefit and drive up our revenue growth, all at their expense. Does anyone else see anything wrong with that statement?!

    • JKern

      Oh, Michael, you are right! You open up an organic market — but price it so people on SNAP can afford it. And you make it close by so people without cars can walk. Yes, cheap, nutritious, local food. Perfect solution. While you’re at it, you should legislate bad food out of business. Because, fact is that nobody has a gun to their head when they go to Taco Bell. And most, I’ll venture a guess could afford a 4 ounce portion of line-caught salmon. Taco Bell improved their food. End of story.

  • Kittykarin

    The bottom line is people have to be responsible for themselves. Taco Bell is serving the people what they want. If they tried to completely change their menu and stop serving soda and unhealthy food, they would be out of business. Even Chipotle sells sodas and a huge burrito with cheese, sour cream and guacamole isn’t exactly healthy either. People have to start making better decisions and demanding healthier options.