Taco Bell


When everyone thinks you're a garbage eater, and you try not to care, but eventually they wear you down and you just have to prove them wrong


Posted 01 Jun 2017    Edited 05 Jun 2017


Let's get one thing straight: I love Taco Bell.

I'm not going to budge on that.

I love the logo; I think their commercials are clever and funny; I love the way they change their menu incrementally so that it's totally different from year-to-year, but you don't really notice the changes; I'm blown away by how fast the drive-thru advances, even when there are a lot of cars; I love the way the lights are set up, so it always looks like there's something fun going on inside at night.

Mostly, I love the food. The Dollar Menu is like God's manna from heaven.

The food is SO, so good. I mean, the flavors/textures/colors of every menu item I've tried are kinda perfect. The ordering of the different ingredients is genius. One time, I made a crunchwrap with instructions from a video that popped up on my Facebook feed, and as I put everything together, I was like, "This was probably made by an aerospace engineer who designed where everything should fit in the International Space Station." Seriously, watch this and you'll see.



Taco Bell food is different from regular food; it's fast food. It's industrial and efficiently delivered and the company is mega corporate and all that stuff that all other fast food chains are. But, it's also different from fast food; or, maybe a better way of putting it - it's so far ahead of the curve. Like, I think Taco Bell is the embodiment of what fast food can be: rapidly evolving, and meticulously developed.

My wife and I recently started watching this series on Netflix called Chef's Table. Each episode examines a particular world-renowned chef and kinda looks at his or her life and career and restaurants and stuff. A common thread you see is that the chefs all bring major art to the table. They create new menu items by following their instincts about food and taking big risks and pushing through negative feedback/reviews and basically realizing their vision.



This is not the way Taco Bell operates.

New items on the TB menu are not the result of individual expression. They are not the product of chefs. They don't take risks and no one stands up in their defense; because no one has to.

New items appear on the Taco Bell menu after hundreds of iterations and tons of data analysis. Taco Bell menu items are made in a lab. By scientists.

There's this article on Thrillist by a reporter who visited the Taco Bell food development lab in Irvine, California. At one part, talking about the then-most-recent item the Naked Chicken Chalupa, he goes:

The Naked Chicken Chalupa began its life where all these things do: in the Test Kitchen three floors down from the Insights Lab. On a recent Friday afternoon, I'm escorted there by my Taco Bell handlers Boyle and Poetsch. On the way down, Poetsch opens a door to reveal a narrow room with a long counter and a row of chairs partitioned off into small peepshow-style booths. Each station is equipped with a video camera through which Taco Bell can record the reactions and facial expressions of people trying out TB's latest creations. It's called the "Sensory Panel," and it's one of the early proving grounds for all of Taco Bell's stunt foods.

One code-locked door later, we're in the Test Kitchen, a gleaming stainless-steel taco workshop where it smells like -- surprise! -- Taco Bell. Here I meet Senior Marketing Manager Kat Garcia, who has worked for the company on and off since the '90s and invented the Double Decker Taco, which remains on Taco Bell's menu. I'm also introduced to Product Development Manager Steve Gomez.

With a shaved skull, gym physique, and background in food science, Gomez is the guy who makes Taco Bell's stunt-food concepts into reality. Working closely with Garcia, he has developed the Doritos Locos Taco, the Quesalupa, and, most recently, the Naked Chicken Chalupa. He says the turnaround time on most product ideas is six to nine months, though the Doritos Locos Taco took three years and untold variations based on roughly 30 to 40 recipes. When I ask Gomez to estimate how many DLTs he had to eat during those years, he just starts laughing. "If I said a couple thousand shells, it probably sounds like I'm exaggerating," he says. "I've had way, way too many shells. I've had my quota for life."

I love Taco Bell. It's objectively, statistically delicious.

But...

I eat enough Taco Bell that, depending on its health value, I might be in trouble


Disclaimer: I'm not a dietician or a biologist or nutritionist - just talking out my ass.

In high school health class, they showed us the documentary Super Size Me. It follows Morgan Spurlock as he eats nothing but McDonald's food for thirty days. All along, he has doctors and dieticians and stuff monitoring different health metrics. He gains quite a bit of weight and suffers some pretty severe negative effects, like liver damage. He also goes through a weird battle with depression that sets in pretty early in the experiment.

When I first saw that, I was like, "Holy crap, I'm never eating fast food again."

But after a few months that kinda wore off. I was just like, "Okay, there are preservatives and stuff in fast food, so that's probably not super great for your health, but... I mean, look at a hamburger: it's bread, meat, mayo, lettuce, a tomato, some onion, and pickles. The tomato and lettuce are good for you, and the other stuff can't be that bad. I eat stuff like that when I'm at home."

So I kinda had this attitude that as long as I didn't order a soda with any of my meals [soda is pretty much uncontroversially bad for humans, right?], I would be okay. Like, at the end of Super Size Me, they interview this guy who's eaten a Big Mac from McDonald's almost every day of his life for the last twenty years or something like that, and he was in relatively good health. The documentary notes that he rarely ordered fries or a soda when he ate.

Armed with that mindset, I set out to show that Taco Bell is not at all bad for you. And I set out to do it in the best way I could think of: with histograms.

So, I did some Excel stuff.

Excel Stuff


Taco Bell provides a nutrition menu online that organizes all their items by submenus [there are about twenty of them]; like Dollar Cravings, Breakfast, and Drinks. I copied all the info off that page into a spreadsheet, and deleted duplicate entries [some of the items overlap on two or more submenus].

You'll note that there are some items on the menu that you don't see in a regular Taco Bell [like beer and rum and a bunch of other drinks]. This is because Taco Bell lumps in the dietary info from all their restaurants, including a couple weird ones in Las Vegas that have a totally different drink menu.

Instead of just showing how many grams of fat or whatever are in each menu item, I wanted to ground all the data with some context, which is harder than you might think. I mean, when a person goes to Taco Bell, he could order a single item off the dollar menu and a water; or, he could grab three Quesaritoes, a thing of Cinnabon shits, and a large soda; or, most likely, something in between.

I decided that if I compared each item against some generally healthy thing, that would be a fair comparison. I feel like the average TB food unit is about as filling as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple. I also think that a PB & J + an apple is fairly uncontroversial: it's vegetarian and vegan friendly, it's a good balance of nutrients and tastiness, and it's probably about as cheap to eat as most things you can buy at Taco Bell.

So, each graph below shows the amount of whatever [calories, fat, sodium, blah, blah, blah] in the TB thing [shown as a blue bar] against the same amount of whatever in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple, combined [shown as an orange line].

I also have a [yellow] line in each graph that shows the recommended daily amount of stuff that science says you're supposed to have -> really, I just Googled "daily recommended amount of [add substance here]" and looked at the first thing that popped up [you know how, now, Google just shows you the most relevant paragraph on the internet to what you searched? Yeah, I did that].

I think it'll make sense when you see the charts...

Calories

Calories are a unit of heat energy. Really, there are two kinds of "calories."
  1. The small calorie: usually used by scientists to describe the heat given off in chemical reactions. It's a very small about of energy; literally, it's the energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
  2. The large calorie [or food calorie]: used by nutritionists to measure the amount of chemical potential energy in food. The amount of energy in a large calorie is one thousand times greater than that of a small calorie. Chemists call this a kilocalorie [which actually makes sense] and pretty much everyone else just calls them calories. When you hear that the chicken salad you're about to eat is one hundred calories, they're these large calories.
Anyway, an active, healthy adult male should have a diet of about 2500 food calories per day. A female of the same health should have about 2000. Kids and old people should have less. Eating more calories than your body requires forces you to store the excess energy. The body generally stores this energy in fat deposits that can later be utilized if your body's energy needs exceed its energy supply from food.

TL;DR: consistently eating more calories than you need will make you fat.

Taco Bell food actually isn't too shabby in the calorie department. Depending on what you pick from the menu, you can eat several TB menu items in a sitting and eat less than a third of your daily recommended calorie amount.

Calories - scroll right to view all items
TB menu item - PB & J + apple - Daily recommended amount

Once I saw this, I was like, "Whoa, Taco Bell isn't bad for you. There are some more energy-dense things on the menu, but as long as you don't massively over-order/over-eat, you'll be fine."

Moving on...

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are like sugars and starches. People have different opinions on the effect of high-carb and low-carb diets. It's mostly probably bullshit. There are certain kinds of carbs whose overconsumption correlates to higher mortality, but, in general, moderate carbohydrate intake is a healthy, natural part of eating and living.

Carbohydrates (grams) - scroll right to view all items
TB menu item - PB & J + apple - Daily recommended amount

Again, pretty reasonable results: there are notable peaks at the Cinnabon and soft drink entries, but those should probably be avoided whether you're in Taco Bell or a gas station or sitting at home.

Fat

There is a healthy amount of fat that a person should eat. Your brains and nerves are largely made outta fat. And there are some essential fats that you need to eat that your body can't produce on its own. But eating too much can put your blood cholesterol out of whack which can, in turn, lead to pretty serious things that can kill you.

There's some controversy about which types of fats are good and bad [a lot like the carbohydrate debate, there's a lot of people who write stuff about it who are just idiot bloggers like me].

Fat (grams) - scroll right to view all items
TB menu item - PB & J + apple - Daily recommended amount

Yikes.

My "oh-my-gosh-just-shut-up-already-about-Taco-Bell-it's-fine" attitude comes under fire. I don't know that I can defend this. You can see in the chart that there's an island of okay-scoring items near the end [these are part of TB's Vegetarian submenu], with items like the Black Bean Burrito and the 7-Layer Burrito that at least don't put you over the daily limit, but... c'mon. You can't eat much more fat at all in the day after you've eaten just one of these items. And if you eat more than one...

Yikes.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is the same story as fat: a small amount is necessary, too much can lead to massive blood/heart probs.

Cholesterol (milligrams) - scroll right to view all items
TB menu item - PB & J + apple - Daily recommended amount

I'm like, "Okay, I can deal with this. I can eat a pretty wide selection of multiple items from this list, and still come under [or just barely over] the recommended daily limit of cholesterol. Maybe this is going to be okay."

Sodium

Sodium is good, right? It couples with potassium in the body and is the microscopic element that allows your muscles to constrict.

Sodium (milligrams) - scroll right to view all items
TB menu item - PB & J + apple - Daily recommended amount

Dammit, Taco Bell.

All my favorite things on here are full of sodium.

Overeating sodium is actually pretty serious. The American Heart Association printed this pamphlet for doctors' offices that lists some of the specific ways sodium can hurt you. It causes your body to retain more water than usual and causes high blood pressure [the silent killer]. High blood pressure is strongly correlated with stroke and heart attack and stuff like that. It's bad.

And it makes sense that the tastiest fast food is also the some of the saltiest. The scientists that are making this stuff are tapping into a scientifically true phenomenon: mammals love salt. It's the reason that mommy animals lick their babies immediately after they're born and often eat their afterbirth. It's the reason you can use a salt lick to attract deer to shoot them, or to trick livestock into eating their vitamins [minerals, actually].



Most mammals have a healthy instinct toward consuming natural salt, because salty things usually also contain other healthy minerals like magnesium and calcium and phosphorous.

But all you need for taste, really, is the sodium. And that, coupled with excessive fat, is sorta like a heart-killing cocktail.

I kinda wish I didn't know...


There is so much freaking fat and salt in all my favorite things on that list. I really kinda wished I didn't know.

But, when I thought about it, I realized that Taco Bell was not the main contributing factor to my crappy diet. As I evaluated my eating habits I realized that I eat a ton of salt. Even if I stopped going to Taco Bell, I would probably eat just as much from even the things I cook at home for myself.

The other day my wife and I bought a pizza from Little Caesar's. We do that pretty often. I usually eat three or four slices with a glass of water and some banana peppers and call it a meal.

That day, though, I went to the fridge for the jar of peppers and realized we had a head of lettuce we bought with groceries a couple weeks prior. The leaves were pretty wilted, and starting to get slimy, even. I pulled off the outer three layers and there was a perfectly good mini head of lettuce on the inside. I cut it into six or seven large chunks and brought it out on a plate with some ranch dressing.

Volume-wise, I ended up eating twice as much lettuce as pizza. I actually only ate one piece of the pizza, and spent the rest of my time and stomach space on the lettuce.

And I felt a ton better after the meal.

It wasn't really that I actually felt like some immediate physical effect. It was more the experience of eating the vegetable. The leaves of the lettuce were cold and wet against my fingers, and they crunched loud between my teeth. The moisture in the plant hydrated my mouth and throat. And I could imagine that I was eating something that probably only passed through a few people's hands and maybe a couple robots before it got to me.

Eating the pizza was just like it always was before: kinda greasy and messy in my fingers, really easy to chew and eat, loaded with flavor, but a little less grounded. Everything in that pizza was the result of an extremely artificial process. And there was a lot of salt that made me thirsty for more water than my stomach could hold.

To me, eating the pizza was and is a much less satisfying experience in every way than eating the lettuce.

Lesson learned


Really, no lesson learned. I still love Taco Bell and other high-sodium food, and I'm going to keep eating it until a doctor tells me I can't anymore.