Taco Bell plans to cater to healthier eaters

NEW YORK — Taco Bell isn’t putting down the chalupa just yet but it’s embarking on a push to shake its reputation as a purveyor of junk food.

The fast-food chain announced Wednesday that it’s exploring ways to offer more balanced choices and transparency. In a call with reporters, CEO Greg Creed said that could mean new products and reformulations of existing offerings.

Creed said the chain is testing a “range of products” this year, with national launches planned for 2014. He declined to provide more details on the tests but noted that the company would remain true to its brand.

“We’re not going to walk away from who Taco Bell is,” Creed said. At the same time, he said the chain has “a role to play in providing more balanced food choices.”

By 2020, Taco Bell says 20 percent of its combo meals will meet nutritional guidelines for calories and fat set out by the federal government. It did not immediately know what portion of meals currently meet those guidelines.

The announcement is likely to be met with skepticism in some corners, considering that Taco Bell is known for urging people to eat nachos as a “fourth meal” late at night. But it shows just how much pressure the broader industry is under to recast its greasy-food image as people increasingly seek out options they feel are healthier.

A report by the Hudson Institute earlier this year found that lower-calorie options were a key indicator of growth at restaurant chains between 2006 and 2011. While chains that expanded lower-calorie options saw customer traffic rise by 11 percent, those that didn’t saw traffic drop by 15 percent, according to the public policy research group.

As customer “tastes and needs” evolve, Creed also said in the call that offering more balanced choices would be critical for Taco Bell to reach its growth targets over the next decade.

Whether the new options fast-food chains have been rolling out actually qualify as healthy is debatable, given the nebulous definitions of the term. But McDonald’s recently introduced chicken wraps, emphasizing their tomatoes, cucumbers and spring mix lettuce. Later this month, it’s also introducing a version of its Egg McMuffin made with egg whites and a whole wheat muffin.

In a push to raise the image of its food, Taco Bell last year also introduced a line of “Cantina” burrito bowls that are seen as being more in line with fast-growing rival Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. Meanwhile, Taco Bell says its lower-calorie “fresco” options, which were introduced in 2005 and come without cheese or sour cream, account for only about 2 percent of sales.

Coincidentally, New York Times writer Mark Bittman noted in a feature for the paper’s Sunday magazine this past week that the public’s relationship with fast food has evolved.

“We’ve gone from the whistle-blowing stage to the higher-expectations stage, and some of those expectations are being met,” Bittman wrote in the piece, which argued that the public was ready for healthier fast food.

That doesn’t mean fast-food chains have stopped offering more indulgent creations. Earlier this year, for example, Taco Bell rolled out hand-held tortilla-wrapped “griller” snacks; one comes stuffed with fried potatoes, a nacho cheese sauce, bacon and sour cream.

Its Doritos Locos Tacos have also been a hit, helping the chain grow sales at restaurants open at least a year 8 percent last year in the U.S.

Taco Bell has about 6,000 locations in the U.S. The chain is a unit of Yum Brands Inc. of Louisville, Ky., which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut.

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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