Like a would-be dieter putting off the big calorie-cut one more day, Taco Bell says it wants to get healthier—just not right now.
This week the home of the Doritos Locos Taco announced plans to make 20 percent of its combo meals meet federal dietary guidelines by 2020. (Do the math: In seven years, you’ll have a one in five chance of eating a “healthier” combo meal at Taco Bell.)
“Does anyone actually go to Taco Bell who is worried about calories or sodium?" one baffled nutritionist asks in USA Today. "I think their target is looking for something that is convenient, low-cost and fills them up."
On the one hand, that’s true—just look at the wild success of the Doritos Locos Taco. With more than 350 million sold (and that number is probably already obsolete), the unholy creation born of junk-food science gone haywire and marketing wizardry is poised to become perhaps one of the defining cultural icons of our time.
(Twitter, Lady Gaga, Obama, Doritos Locos Tacos…there, you’ve just summed up the early 2010s.)
But even as Taco Bell execs revel in the extraordinary success of their brainchild, going so far as to tout the new tacos' prowess as a job creator (the company says it added 15,000 jobs to deal with demand), they’re also no doubt aware that when it comes to junk food, Americans’ passions can be fickle—just look at what happened to Krispy Kreme.
And though the mad scientists in the fast-food industry continue to roll out publicity-grabbing, gut-busting creations that sell (hello Pizza Hut’s Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza), the overall trend lines for traditional fast food are causing no small degree of worry among the top brass at the nation’s top chains.
The big concern? "Millennials,” that tweet-and-text generation roughly between the ages of 23 and 36, who appearing to be losing interest in fast food. As a recent headline in Ad Age put it, vis-à-vis the nation’s biggest fast-food chain, “McDonald’s Has a Millennial Problem.”
Whether Taco Bell does, too, is open to debate. (Surely few customers making midnight runs for a bagful of Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco Supremes are older than 36, right?).
But as Ad Age points out, millennials are different from the generations that preceded them. Maybe it’s because they were born into a burgeoning era of food that's free-range, organic, sustainable, non-GMO etc., etc. Maybe it’s because they cut their lit-culture teeth on Fast Food Nation.
Whatever the case, they don’t seem to be stocking up on Slim Jims and cigarettes at the local C-store the way Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke did in the Gen X touchstone Reality Bites. Instead, millennials “place an emphasis on the importance of organic and fresh food,” Ad Age reports.
Basically, McDonald’s new line of chicken McWraps is its gambit to keep more millennials from decamping for Subway. (McDonald’s admits that much in internal company memos obtained by Ad Age.)
Meanwhile, a gazillionth Doritos Locos taco was probably just sold somewhere.
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.
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