Two More Chains Drop Artificial Ingredients and Join the 'Food Revolution'

Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are the latest in a long line of brands to announce such changes this year.

(Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters)

May 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There's a revolution happening in the food world, and to hear it from fast-food executives, it is taking place not on some idyllic farm but at the drive-through.

Taco Bell announced Tuesday that it is booting all artificial colors and flavors off its menu by the end of the year. The chain that built its reputation in no small part on its interpretation of Tex-Mex cuisine in a variety of radioactive hues made the announcement this week, signaling that longtime fans who’ve grown accustomed to the cartoonish palette of shockingly yellow nacho cheese or fire-engine-red tortilla chips may have to settle for something a bit more “natural” from now on.

The fast-food giant appears to be betting that there are more customers who are growing wary of artificial ingredients than there are die-hard Taco Bell junkies who’ll defect if they can’t satisfy their cravings with fare as garish and bright as an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Bell’s sister company Pizza Hut also made a similar announcement; both are owned by Yum Brands.

The double announcements come less than a month after Panera unveiled, to much fanfare, its “No No List,” a tally of more than 150 artificial ingredients that the up-and-coming chain says it is exiling from all its food by the end of 2016, and on the heels of similarly publicized efforts by a variety of fast-food companies recently to try to capitalize on shifting public demand for healthier food—or, at least, for food the public can be duped into perceiving as healthier.

“We’re part of an exciting time—a food revolution,” Taco Bell Chief Innovation Officer Liz Matthews said in a statement. “Today’s customers are more curious and interested about food than ever. They want to understand what they’re eating and expect to know more about it.”

Pizza Hut CEO David Gibbs essentially parrots that in his own statement: “Today's consumer more than ever before wants to understand the ingredients that make up the foods that they enjoy.”

In such corporate pronouncements, you can easily get a sense of just how thin a tightrope these folks are walking, somehow publicizing their menu changes without at all seeming to criticize the food that they've been relentlessly marketing for years.

Thus, when you get past the rah-rah PR-speak, you realize that what these chains are offering is pretty hollow: “transparency.” Yes, Taco Bell may be willing to rid itself of such scientifically formulated artificial flavors and colors as Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1—ingredients that the chain was all too willing to ply consumers with when we were apparently living in the culinary Dark Ages, supposedly not giving a damn about what we put in our mouths. (That will continue to be on the menu in things like fountain drinks and "co-branded" products, such as those hybrid Doritos taco shells.)

What goes unsaid is that there are a host of “natural” ingredients—i.e., the same types you cook with at home—that are the real culprits behind the public health crisis in America, the one that centers on the rise in obesity and its related ills. Ingredients such as fat, sugar, and salt—all of which the menus at both Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have in spades, as do, let’s face it, the menus of upstarts like Panera and Chipotle.

John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, also appears to recognize that we're living in the middle of a "food revolution," but whether that means we'll come out on the other side any savvier in our ability to recognize food makers' PR gimmicks is open to debate.

“We’re seeing a changing culture in the way that people look at food,” Coupland told Fast Company. “As a scientist I worry about, what does ‘natural’ actually mean? It’s a vague concept to base decisions on. Removing some ingredients is a way to make food appear more natural without really underlining what is actually a problem.”