Like most fast-food chains, Taco Bell has dealt with plenty of urban legends surroundings its grub. Surely, you’ve had someone with glazed eyes watch you eat a Crunchwrap Supreme and say, “Hey man, did you know Taco Bell beef is practically vegan because it has so little actual beef.”
In fact, it was rumors like that one that first compelled the fast-food chain to share the ingredients for its meat—which is says is 88% “USDA-inspected” ground beef—on its website back in 2011. And now, that website has gone viral after news outlets like Time and Business Insider noticed the appearance of amusing colloquial explanations of some of the unfamiliar ingredients that make up that other 12%.
As Eater critic Ryan Sutton pointed out, it almost sounds like a modernist cuisine manual, with sections on maltodextrin and soy lecithin:
Here’s the full ingredient list for Taco Bell beef, should you want to try to crack the recipe at home. The good news is that the first ingredient really is beef:
The website’s explanations gesture in the direction of transparency, though there’s certainly some slick copy-writing going on, like connecting modified corn starch to real Mexican cooking because, well, Mexicans eat corn too.
Here’s a quick look at the ingredients that make up the “other 12%” of Taco Bell’s beef:
What it is: A powdered starch that’s usually made from corn or potatoes, usually used to enhance texture. In the U.S. and Canada, it’s exclusively made from corn or potatoes. (As an aside, those of you who are gluten-free may want to be careful about maltodextrin in products from other countries, as it’s sometimes made from wheat or barley.)
What it is: A type of sugar that is only about 40-45% as sweet as table sugar.
3. Torula yeast
What it is: Firstly, it’s not something you need to see your doctor about. It’s a type of yeast that’s used as a flavor enhancer in many packaged foods, from chips to crackers. Taco Bell says it gives its beef “a more savory taste.”
4. Modified corn starch
What it is: It’s a corn-based thickener that’s made with basic corn starch, which is then chemically modified to introduce other qualities to it. While it still thickens like standard corn starch (which you might use in puddings or to thicken some sauces, if you cook), modified corn starch also improves shelf life.
5. Soy lecithin
What it is: It’s an emulsifier that naturally occurs as a byproduct of making soybean oil. Available in powdered form, it’s actually also used to make all those fancy foams you see in molecular gastronomy. Emulsification brings together two ingredients that otherwise would naturally be repelled by one another—like the oil and vinegar in your salad dressing. In Taco Bell’s case, it keeps the ground beef and fat from separating. And as used in modernist cooking, adding it to low- or no-fat liquids creates foam.
6. Sodium phosphates
What they are: More emulsifiers, but with additional properties including regulating acidity/alkalinity in food, stabilizing ingredients in food, and preventing oxidation—in other words, preventing the browning that occurs in some foods (such as raw beef) due to oxygen exposure. You’ve already eaten these many times if you’ve eaten deli meats.
7. Lactic acid
What it is: A naturally-derived ingredient used to control acidity.
8. Caramel color
What it is: A somewhat controversial food coloring that makes things brown. It’s commonly found in many sodas that you drink, and is the most commonly used food coloring agent in the world. Sounds harmless enough, right? The controversy stems from some types of this coloring containing a potentially carcinogenic ingredient called 4-methylimidazole, or 4-Mel, for short. Taco Bell, for the record, says that it’s “caramelized sugar.”
9. Cocoa powder
What it is: You probably mixed it up and drank it all winter, possibly with alcohol. It also makes things brown, which you found out the hard way if you got it on your shirt.
[via Good Morning America]