Taco Bell to ‘beef’ up menu

WASHINGTON — Like it or not, the paleo diet fad has now gone mainstream.

This week, Taco Bell announced that it will be beefing up its menu — quite literally — by launching a new menu centered around meat and protein. The new menu, which, as the Mexican fast food chain explained, is “the next evolution of its Cantina Bell menu,” will be called the Cantina Power Menu, and will feature food items with double portions of meat and more than 20 grams of protein. Essentially, it’s Taco Bell’s bet that Americans are increasingly interested in protein content, and decreasingly interested in so-called diet foods.

“We heard customers requesting a higher protein solution with the flavors Cantina delivers, so here is Cantina Power,” said company president Brian Niccol. “People are not looking for diet food. They want food that gives them energy,” he said.

Taco Bell launched its original Cantina menu back in 2012 to appease consumers looking for brighter and fresher ingredients. The menu initially included items with ingredients like fresh guacamole and fire roasted corn salsa, and was promoted with artfully shot ads sporting the aesthetic of Food Network cooking shows.

But it appears that Taco Bell has either come to the conclusion that its customers go elsewhere for that sort of fare, or simply learned that America’s love for protein-packed foods trumps all else.

Most likely, it’s the latter.

Taco Bell isn’t getting rid of the “fresh” ingredients — it’s merely topping them with more meat and using that as the prevailing marketing pitch.

Taco Bell’s bet comes at a particularly promising moment for protein. Demand for protein-rich foods is growing quickly around the globe, but especially fast in the U.S. Protein supplement sales, for instance, have grown by more than 40 percent since 2008, and are expected to grow by another 40-plus percent by 2018, according to estimates by market research firm Euromonitor.

And interest in foods with higher protein content is especially pronounced among America’s youth, which just so happens to be Taco Bell’s prime audience.

Taco Bell isn’t the first fast food company to double down on America’s growing muscle obsession. Other chains, including Panera Bread Co., which sports its own power menu, have made similar bets. And large food manufacturers, like Kraft, have tried their hand at the trend, too. Kraft, for its part, began selling a product called P3, which combines nuts, meat and cheese, earlier this year.

But Taco Bell does seem pretty serious about it. So serious, that it isn’t stopping at extra meat and added protein — it’s even extended its menu to include Greek yogurt. “There are lots of yogurt parfaits out there, so we asked ourselves what would get people excited about yogurt at Taco Bell, and the answer is Greek yogurt,” Niccol said.

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