- Taco Bell recently rolled out new vegetarian menu consisting of 11 older items and two new additions: the “Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme” and the “Black Bean Quesarito.”
- Though nutritionists say these new options are slightly healthier than their meaty counterparts, they should not be considered nutritious choices as they are high-calorie, high-fat foods that are also high in sodium.
- Instead, experts suggest the various bowls available on the company’s “power menu” are options on the “healthier side” because they are not served in a white-flour processed tortilla and contain a greater serving of vegetables.
Now, Taco Bell is joining the fast food industry’s embrace of “healthy menus” by revamping its vegetarian offerings.
The popular Mexican-inspired food chain announced that its full vegetarian menu of 13 items will be available nationwide, reaching more than 7,000 sites, according to a press release.
The company is touting two new offerings in particular — the “Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme” and the “Black Bean Quesarito.”
Taco Bell is the latest fast food brand to jump on the bandwagon of offering perceived “healthier” new menu items. But like the new keto-friendly breakfast bowls from Dunkin‘ and the Impossible Whopper from Burger King, are these new items really a healthier choice?
Christina Crowder, MS, RDN/LD, CNSC, CDE, a certified specialist in nutrition support, gives a simple “no” to that answer when asked how nutritious the new items are.
“Most individuals would want more than just one of these items for lunch, and they already have half the daily sodium, minimal protein, and a lot of carbohydrates,” Crowder told Healthline. “Even though these items pack a high-fat, caloric punch, you’ll likely be looking for more. Add a soft drink —non-diet — and chips, salsa, queso, and that’s why we live with an obesity crisis.”
The Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme stands at 510 calories and consists of black beans, nacho cheese sauce, tomatoes, reduced-fat sour cream, and lettuce.
The Black Bean Quesarito clocks in at 630 calories and is made up of its titular black beans, reduced fat sour cream, cheese, nacho cheese sauce, chipotle sauce, and seasoned rice.
Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said that while these new items are “better than the meaty alternatives” on the menu, that isn’t saying they are nutritious choices.
“I would say that they still are primarily processed white-flour, lots of calories, tortillas with a small amount of beans, high-salt cheesy product (not even sure it’s real cheese), and a token amount of vegetables,” Hunnes told Healthline. “Like I said, they are slightly better than the original meat versions, but they are not a health food.”
If you have a Taco Bell craving, Hunnes suggests that you check out the bowls available on the company’s “power menu.” She said these items appear to be on the “healthier side” because they come in bowls, not the white-flour processed tortilla of traditional tacos.
These bowls also appear to have more vegetables and “is more of a nutritious offering with fiber and produce,” she added.
That being said, nothing is perfect, especially when it comes to fast food.
“Of course, you can make it less healthy by adding cheesy products to it or high-calorie salad-type dressing, but at least these two options are a bit healthier. Also the black bean and rice option is again, at least healthier,” Hunnes explained.
Crowder added that if you want to make your on-the-go meal or family visit to Taco Bell more nutritious, you should limit the carbs found in tortillas and rice, for instance. She said you should “aim for veggies” — the more the better.
“Unfortunately, there are not a lot of filling veggies offered here which would help keep you full, along with adequate protein per meal of about 20 to 30 grams,” Crowder said.
She cautioned that you should always watch your sodium intake as well, especially the serving found in your side of chips and queso.
Despite some nutritional misgivings of these so-called “healthy” menus, should fast food industry titans like Taco Bell be applauded for attempting to be more inclusive of customers who don’t eat meat products?
“I do think that adding vegetarian options is a step in the right direction at including more population groups that normally wouldn’t step foot in that restaurant,” Hunnes said.
Crowder said it depends — it’s a very personal opinion.
“I’m not sure how helpful adding these products is in terms of sustainability. By offering a ‘Crunchwrap’ version with black beans, no less factory farming is occurring,” Crowder added. “I’d say these choices definitely aren’t any healthier than their animal product counterparts if you are ‘plant-based’ in the name of health.”
Hunnes said that Taco Bell could go further by creating more plant-based and vegan options that could be augmented by customers. This means you would have a vegan base that people add to by choosing additional toppings.
She suggested restaurants who did something along these lines would be moving in a healthier direction.
“Why not make the default a little healthier? Studies have shown that when defaults are healthier, people tend to eat more healthfully than when the default is less healthy and people have to request to not have something on the food item,” Hunnes said.
Taco Bell announced this month that it’s taking its full vegetarian menu national — all 13 veggie items will be available in more than 7,000 restaurants. Chief among these items are two new offerings — the “Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme” and the “Black Bean Quesarito.”
While this fits a larger trend of fast food companies embracing seemingly healthier alternatives, nutritionists caution that adding “vegetarian” to a title doesn’t make a meal healthier.
They said both of the new menu items, for instance, are still made up primarily of highly processed white-flour, lots of calories, heavy in sodium, full of cheese, and contain just a smattering of needed vegetables.
Experts suggest that healthy initiatives from restaurant chains like Taco Bell would be better served by menu items that start with a vegetarian base that customers could choose to add on to, making this the norm instead of the default meat options.