With New Nutritional Goals, CEO Promises a 'Better Taco Bell'

Fast-Feeder Aims for More Balanced Options by 2020

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Taco Bell's "fourth meal" might get a little bit healthier.

Taco Bell Wednesday announced it was overhauling some of its menu items to meet stricter nutritional standards. The move is yet another sign that food companies are trying to keep ahead of regulatory efforts and changing consumer desire for more healthful fare.

CEO Greg Creed said during a conference call with reporters that the chain plans to offer more nutritionally sound products and offer more transparency. The chain is aiming to have 20% of combo meals meet only one-third of the U.S.' daily recommended guidelines, operating on the assumption that most people eat three meals per day. For instance, based on a 2,000 calorie diet recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Taco Bell would pledge to have 20% of its meal deals have no more than one-third of that total calorie count, or an estimated 666 calories. "We have to offer more balanced options," he said.

Not just calories will be affected -- dietary guidelines for fat, sodium and other ingredients will be taken into consideration. Missy Schaaphok, nutritionist for product development at Taco Bell said that the chain has "a social responsibility" to its 36 million customers who visit Taco Bell weekly, adding that about five meal options on the meal deal menu now meet the new guidelines.

Taco Bell declined to state exactly what menu items will be affected, but did say that reformulations are on the table and that the chain will be testing new items in the latter half of the year for a projected 2014 rollout.

No fundamental change
Mr. Creed was quick to point out that the Taco Bell brand will not undergo a fundamental change. "We are not going to walk away from who Taco Bell is," said Mr. Creed, adding that the company recognizes that in order to grow its business, it needs to be a "better Taco Bell" and a "more relevant Taco Bell." The company has said publicly that it plans to double the size of its business in the next 10 years, going from roughly $7 billion annually in sales to $14 billion.

Ad Age reported in February that a study by the Hudson Institute found that lower-calorie foods were driving growth at major restaurant chains. Between 2006 and 2011, lower-calorie foods and beverages were the growth drivers for the chains analyzed, and in 17 of the 21 chains studied, lower-calorie foods and drinks outperformed items that were not lower-calorie.

Taco Bell began reducing sodium in its products in 2009 and 2010, cutting sodium on average 20% across the menu. Taco Bell also has "fresco" options, which are items served without cheese and sour cream, reducing calorie count and fat content. Mr. Creed said that those only account for about 2% of Taco Bell's sales.

Mr. Creed and Ms. Schaaphok hinted that the chain would overhaul its kids' meals.

Taco Bell last year rolled out its Cantina menu, a platform that it introduced to increase quality perception of Taco Bell, as well as a way for the chain to compete with Chipotle, which general has better quality perception than Taco Bell.

Some fast-food chains in recent years have been working to jettison the image that they offer little more than junk food. McDonald's in 2011 announced it would revamp its menu by 2020, reducing added sugar, saturated fat and calories through varied portion sizes and reformulations. Many of the chicken items have gone through a 10% reduction in sodium; McDonald's will reduce sodium an average of 15% across its national menu by 2015. McDonald's most recently rolled out the McWrap this month in the hopes that consumers, particularly Millennials, will view the product as fresh.

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