Why Taco Bell is beefing up its protein offerings

The latest power play: Flex, then fajitas.
The latest power play: Flex, then fajitas.
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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This summer, restaurant chain Taco Bell plans to test a new Protein Power menu in some US stores, as part of its drive to stay within new “nutritional guardrails” and present a healthier face to customers. CEO Greg Creed notes increased consumer interest in protein for “performance,” presumably meaning building muscle, a great fit for its young, male-skewed dining clientele.

Taco Bell could be onto not only a short-term product hit with America’s loco Fourth Meal aficionados—the well known “gym-then-gordita” set—it could be cleverly setting itself up to be au courant with some critical long-term trends that are facing it and its food service kin. Here’s why:

“Meat” has become a troublesome word for fast food, and for Taco Bell. The company was hit with an uproar over the percentage of actual meat in the “taco meat filling” it calls “beef” on its menu back in 2011. While the company did provide a full explanation of what goes into this filling, the PR damage stung the company for a while. Taco Bell also managed to get lassoed into the horsemeat scandal that engulfed Europe recently, with the equine product found in beef used by three of its British outlets (none of which found its way into the company’s US meat supply). With the additional issues the fast-food industry faces regarding the content of its meats, using the more general “protein,” as meats are often referred to internally in the restaurant business, could help shift the discussion away from these nagging issues. After all, some of what shows up in fast-food meat may still be a protein—just not one you know well.

Meat can increasingly be made in different ways. As scientists claim to get closer to being able to either grow meat in a laboratory vat or 3D-print it, how we think of meat will soon be changing. Heck, we may not even need to print or grow it at all if the geniuses behind the omnimeal Soylent have their way. They and other intrepid disruptors of our traditional foodways are looking to streamline how we make, get and even eat our food, so why bother with something so specific as “beef” when you can just push the shiny protein button, open wide, and om nom nom?

We may be reaching Peak Meat. As we consume more meat, and our global population grows, other sources of protein need to satisfy our diets. A projected global population of 9 billion people by 2050 will need other sources of sustenance to keep them going, and, frankly, the global agricultural system can’t produce enough feed to keep our beef habit on track. Pork, fish and other traditional alternatives to beef will also put a strain on resources, meaning we have to look to other creatures to keep us crunching. The Food and Agriculture Organization suggests we downscale our idea of livestock and develop a taste for termites or grasshoppers, both rich in protein. By stepping up a level from specific animals to a general promise of protein, Taco Bell could be onto a long-term growth trend.

Protein is what America needs right now. The US is undoubtedly experiencing a prolonged period of stress. It’s been a hellish decade and then some, between terror attacks, multiple wars, a deep recession, and global financial instability. Researchers and nutritionists conclude protein is beneficial to humans’ management of stress and even depression. Combine that with protein’s favored role in bulking up muscle, and it could be just what what the doctor ordered for the coming decade.