02 February 2011

Could Taco Bell's 'pseudo meat' trigger a wider acceptance of plant-based foods?

When I first heard the news about Taco Bell pawning off a semi-beef filling in their entrĂ©e selections, I wasn’t really all that surprised. Taco meat (as they call it) is a vague enough term to be legally acceptable without spilling the beans on their actual ingredient list. Is it really worth being up in arms about, though? Probably not.

When it comes to fast food chains, common sense should dictate that they’re typically focused first and foremost on maintaining high profit margins – despite the tough economic climate – by delivering consistently affordable edibles. No one is twisting our arm or forcing us to purchase their offerings. When we do decide to swallow what they’re serving, we should take it upon ourselves to read between the lines and surmise that they’re probably able to sell $1 ‘value meals’ through the use of lesser quality ingredients, some of which are regarded as passable fillers.

In the fast food industry, passing one thing off as another isn't unusual. Take burgers, for example. Cargill-manufactured patties are indeed beef (in spite of what part of the animal the ingredients are sourced from) but they use that term with creative license. In addition to containing bread crumbs, ammonia and flavoring agents, their burgers are also made with a 50-50 blend of muscle tissue and fat obtained from multiple slaughterhouses across the country. Similarly, chicken nuggets are typically achieved by shaping an odd-looking pink porridge of purportedly edible mechanically separated poultry tissue, soy and other fillers into bite sized pieces before breading and cooking them to fast food perfection.

In terms of Taco Bell’s offense, it almost seems as though patrons should be thanking them. Instead of dining on very low quality, 100% factory-farmed beef tacos laden with an excessive amount of fat, fans of the Bell have instead been unwittingly chowing on a minor amount of beef augmented with a hearty amount of plant-based protein (in the form of oats). Here’s a list of the actual ingredients that they use, which don’t seem nearly as horrifying as the press initially suggested. Oats are heart healthy and filling, so how is this a bad thing? (We're talking about a 99 cent taco, by the way!)

If we can get past the fact that Taco Bell has conveniently taken advantage of consumer expectation by offering a meat-like product rather than a 100% legitimate version, there is an obvious silver lining that naysayers are failing to focus on. A fast food joint has in some small way been responsible for keeping American arteries in tip-top form! Serial Taco Bell fans could also conceivably achieve a greater acceptance of plant food palatability since they've gamely eaten the aforementioned taco 'meat' without suspicion. Apparently, the stuff must taste pretty good.

Aside from the modest amount of beef that Taco Bell puts in their entrees, here's an interesting side note. The fast food joint must have commiserated with the master chefs at Boca and Morningstar Farms because it turns out that they all share a remarkably similar ingredient list. Thanks to the folks at Chow, you can actually see with your own two eyes that the recipes for Boca’s All American Flame Grilled Meatless Burgers and Morningstar Farms’ Griller patties clearly echo the fillers and flavoring agents that Taco Bell uses in their taco 'meat.'

Is any of this a legitimate travesty...or does it just prove that if we can successfully trick our taste buds into going veg, our collective hearts will follow? For mainstream eaters, perhaps Taco Bell's 'fast one' will make them realize that if it tastes good, maybe the meat really isn't an essential ingredient after all.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/colley