You know that distinct Taco Bell taste? That salty, spiced, umami, unique flavor you love from a Taco Bell taco, chalupa, Mexican Pizza, Crunchwrap Supreme, or any of the chain's other menu items that contain beef? That flavor comes to you not from the beef alone, but from the myriad other ingredients added to the meat.
For years, those other ingredients were a closely guarded mystery. Then, per NPR, Taco Bell got hit with a lawsuit. In early 2011, an Alabama-based law firm filed a suit against Taco Bell alleging the chain's ground beef didn't contain enough actual beef to be referred to as such. In fact, an attorney involved with the case even claimed Taco Bell's "beef" contained just 35% actual meat.
Taco Bell came back swinging, launching a multi-million campaign that touted the quality, flavor, and meatiness of its meat, and also revealing the ingredients publicly. The pushback worked and the suit was dropped. In the process, we all learned what is actually in Taco Bell's beef. Which, it turns out, is mostly beef, but not entirely; 12% of the "beef" the chain uses is actually a blend of other ingredients and spices.
And that's fine, for the record, especially because the food tastes great. It's just important that the consumer has all the info, which is why we're spilling the proverbial beans on these four fast-food chains that don't use pure ground beef.
We know Taco Bell beef is 88% ground beef, but what constitutes the remaining 12%? Quite a few ingredients, as it happens, a few of which are rather surprising. Per the company's Ingredients page, the "Seasoned Beef" is made with beef, water, seasoning, salt, and sodium phosphates. The 12% comes in with that hearty dose of seasoning in the form of the usual suspects like chili pepper, salt, spices, tomato powder, sugar, onion powder, citric acid, natural flavors (including smoke flavor), torula yeast—a flavor enhancer like MSG—and a dash of cocoa. But also some filler that likely stretches the meat like cellulose, oats, and modified corn starch.
Del Taco is another chain with beef boasting a unique flavor thanks to a complicated blend of ingredients referred to as "seasoning." The restaurant's "seasoned beef" consists primarily of beef, water, and "textured vegetable protein," a high-protein soy product that is commonly used to extend meat, according to Science Direct. The flavor comes from salt, chili pepper spices, tomato powder, garlic powder, hydrolyzed corn gluten, wheat protein, and soy protein, silicon dioxide, autolyzed yeast extract, sugar, citric acid, sodium diacetate, [and] malic acid." You'll also find added oats and isolated oat product, which is oats ground into a powder.
Jack in the Box
If you do even a cursory search for the ingredients in Jack in the Box tacos, you'll come across a lot of internet chatter suggesting they are in fact vegetarian friendly, being made with soy protein, not beef. This is false, though, per Veg Knowledge: Jack in the Box tacos absolutely contain beef. The "meat" just happens to contain a lot of other ingredients, too, like ground dark chicken, textured vegetable protein, defatted soy grits, (that's the soy), and a whole lot of stuff in the seasoning.
It's hard to find the actual ingredients used in the beef served at Taco John's, but we know one thing: there's at least some soy in it. That's because when you look at the allergen information the chain shares on its website, every single item that uses ground beef lists soy as a present allergen, and that's true whether it's a taco in a crispy corn shell or one wrapped in a soft wheat tortilla or for burritos and so on. We reached out to Taco John's to see how the soy is used but have not yet heard back.
3 That Always Do
The typical beef taco will always be suspect in the fast-food world, that's because lots of spices and fillers can hide in a ground beef mixture. If you're looking for tacos without these fillers, look for pieces of meat that you can recognize. Here are three chains that don't use these fillers, but again, eat what you like!
Chipotle is a burrito chain first and foremost and arguably a bowl chain second, but this place makes a mean taco, too. And the beef you'll find in those tacos when you ask for steak or barbacoa? That's real beef, folks. Seasoned and spiced, sure, but fillers and additives? Oh no.
The chain's site says in part: "Our steak and Barbacoa always start with Responsibly Raised beef. Then, we achieve tenderness in two ways. First, we cook it sous vide, which locks in moisture by heating the beef at a precise, low temperature for a looong time. Then we marinate it overnight in our smoky, spicy chipotle pepper adobo, and finish it on the grill (for steak) or add aromatic spices like oregano, cloves, and bay leaf, braise it slowly at a low temperature until it's mouthwateringly tender, then shred it by hand (for Barbacoa)."
Fun fact: Chipotle used to grill its meat before widespread food poisoning issues led the chain to a safer sous vide technique. It also blanches all of its jalapenos to avoid any issues.
When you get a Baja Fresh taco with beef as the protein, you won't be getting ground beef, but rather whole chunks of steak. The same goes for its burritos and fajitas, too. The chain is so dedicated to fresh, whole foods, in fact, that it proudly states its restaurants have "no microwaves, no freezers, no can openers" and that the foods are "never processed, [are] farm-fresh, [and] handmade."
Sharky's Woodfired Mexican Grill is a staple of the Los Angeles area (though there are a few farther afield) that is best known for its seafood, but the chain does fine work with other proteins, too. Like the steak at Sharky's, which is properly called Grass-Fed Steak per the chain's menu. And when you order a steak taco from Sharky's, not only is it made with pure beef, but with organic rice and beans, too.