Photo: Erik MarcusAll this talk about Taco Bell’s beef-spiked stew of fillers and flavor “enhancers” got me to wondering: What other weird stuff lurks in the fast food giant’s delicacies? Luckily, Taco Bell provides a convenient online ingredients list for its products. Let’s peruse it, shall we?
Let’s start with a rather straight-forward dish: steak. On the rare occasions I cook steak, here’s what I do. Ingredients are pretty basic: steak, sea salt, pepper, a high-quality cooking fat, and a few simple substances (wine, garlic, shallots) for sauce. Here’s Taco Bell’s version:
Beef, Water, Seasoning [Modified Potato Starch, Salt, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Dextrose, Maltodextrin, Carrageenan, Paprika, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Spices, Hot Sauce (Aged Red Peppers, Vinegar, Salt), Citric Acid, Sugar, Dehydrated Vinegar, Soybean Oil, Natural Flavors, Soybean Lecithin], Sodium Phosphates. Sauce: Water, Seasoning (Salt, Caramel Color, Modified Food Starch, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Maltodextrin, Dextrose, Garlic Powder, Xanthan Gum, Onion Powder, Beef Stock, Vinegar Solids, Natural Flavors, Citric Acid, Sugar, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Succinic Acid, Soy Lecithin, Beef Fat, Potassium Sorbate) Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, BHT. CONTAINS SOYBEANS
Wow — not just dehydrated vinegar, but also vinegar solids. Both concepts blow my mind. You can turn vinegar into a solid substance? You can dehydrate it? And the two things are different? Who is Taco Bell’s head chef, Ferran Adria?
Then there’s the presence of dextrose, a form of sugar. By itself, dextrose evidently doesn’t do the trick for Taco Bell’s food engineers, so they have to add maltodextrin. What is maltodextrin, you ask? Here’s Wikipedia:
Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide that is used as a food additive. It is produced from starch by partial hydrolysis and is usually found as a creamy-white hygroscopic spray dried powder. Maltodextrin is easily digestible, being absorbed as rapidly as glucose, and might be either moderately sweet or almost flavorless. It is commonly used for the production of natural sodas and candy. [Emphasis mine.]
Sodas, candy, and … steak?
Then there’s that lashing of heart-ruining partially hydrogenated soybean oil in the steak sauce. Nice job, guys! Clearly, my pedestrian steak-cooking style needs a kick in the pants from those Taco Bell kitchen wizards.
Let’s move to “southwestern chicken”: now with mixed triglycerides!
Chicken Breast Meat With Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning [Salt, Maltodextrin, Spices, Garlic Powder, Chili Pepper, Paprika, Onion Powder, Carrageenan, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Natural Flavoring, Mixed Triglycerides, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup Solids, Yeast Extract, Alginates (Sodium, Calcium And/Or Ammonium), Cellulose, Calcium Chloride, Sodium Benzoate Used To Protect Quality, Not More Than 2 percent Silicon Dioxide Added To Prevent Caking, Soybean Oil], Modified Food Starch, Sodium Phosphates Soy Lecithin (Used As A Processing Aid). CONTAINS SOYBEANS
Again, we get something usually thought of as liquid — this time, corn syrup — in solid form. And again, we find echoes of one ingredient in another: not just disodium inosinate, but also disodium guanylate — both of which seem to be normally used with some form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). I think my favorite ingredient of all is this: “Sodium Benzoate Used To Protect Quality, Not More Than 2 Percent Silicon Dioxide Added To Prevent Caking.” Because, you know, I think we can all agree it sucks when southwestern chicken starts caking. Forget that research suggests that sodium benzoate may cause “serious cell damage.”
I could go on for a while like this. In a pork dish, we find “Roast Pork Flavor,” which consists of “Water, Flavor, Salt, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Sunflower Oil, Propylene Glycol, Natural Smoke Flavor, Xanthan Gum.” (I salute the use of “flavor” as an ingredient.) That same dish contains “Pork Conditioner” (Modified Food Starch), and “Grilled Flavor” (Maltodextrin, Salt, Grill Flavor [from Vegetable Oil]).
But perhaps the biggest engineering triumph of all lies in the dessert menu. Taco Bell does feel the need to include actual pork amid the “Roast Pork Flavor.” Even its infamous “seasoned beef” contains 34 percent beef. Truth-in-advertising attorneys take note: Taco has successfully engineered the strawberries out of the “Strawberry Frutista.” I’m not sure what a frutista is; the word doesn’t exist outside the confines of the Taco Bell-world. But I know what a strawberry is, and I don’t see even one on this ingredient list.
Treated Water, Sugar, Citric Acid, Natural Flavor, Yucca Extract, Salt, Red Dye #40, Sodium Benzoate (Preserves Freshness), Potassium Sorbate (Preserves Freshness)
The engineers failed miserably, though, with tomatoes. Ingredients:
Perhaps since agreeing to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes from Florida after a boycott from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Taco Bell execs found some grudging respect for the ingredient and waved its engineers back. If only other common foodstuffs got similar treatment from the fast food industry.