Taco Bell is known for many things: turning Doritos into taco shells, “diablo” sauce, Gidget the spokes-chihuahua. But its greatest achievement, in my humble opinion? Being the friendliest major fast food restaurant for vegetarians and vegans.

It’s an achievement that the chain is very proud of and touts vigorously to plant-eating audiences. But a new change to the menu, which is removing several of the most vegetarian and vegan-friendly options at the Bell, has prompted concern among grassroots Taco Bell aficionados.

Among the items being removed are the 7-Layer Burrito, Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes, Chips and Dips, and Cheesy Potato Grillers — all of which are vegetarian, if certainly not vegan. Spicy Tostadas, which are easily made veggie, are gone too, and the Quesarito (exactly what it sounds like: a burrito with a lot of cheese) will only be able for order online or through apps.

In a statement, the restaurant explained that the menu simplification was designed to create room for future, novel menu items, and to “ensure an easy and fast ordering experience for our guests and team members.” It’s easier to reliably and quickly churn out a smaller number of menu items, so there are efficiency gains to menu-shortening.

But all is not lost for veggie Taco Bell fans. The changes don’t render the restaurant totally unfriendly to vegetarians. And animal welfare supporters caution that the company’s still on the right track. “There continues to remain an excellent vegetarian selection, and vegetarian combination options are still available,” Len Torine, executive director of the American Vegetarian Association, told me.

If you’re a 7-Layer Burrito fan, that might be cold comfort. But both the company and outside analysts say that the restaurant is likely to expand its plant-based meat options in the near future. That suggests that the latest menu changes are only a temporary setback for vegetarians and vegans, who could be getting better items soon.

The rest of the fast food industry has been rapidly adopting plant-based meats from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Will Taco Bell be following suit?

The lore of veggie Taco Bell

As most vegetarians I’ve met know, and most carnivores I’ve met do not, any item at Taco Bell can have its beef contents substituted for refried beans (more recently, restaurants have begun offering black beans, too).

In one fell swoop, that makes much of the chain’s menu available to vegetarians. Leave off the cheese and the sour cream, and much of the menu becomes vegan. Better yet, the chain stocked a number of menu items that are vegetarian by default. The 7-Layer Burrito, for instance, contains beans, rice, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream: not a meat ingredient in there. Leave off the last two ingredients for a 5-Layer Burrito and it’s easily vegan. There might be some cross-contamination with meat products on the stove, but if you’re not too fastidious about that, it’s easy for vegetarians to get by at the Bell.

I live in Washington, DC, where eating vegetarian is relatively easy, but when I go on reporting trips to parts of the US where herbivore options are more limited, Taco Bell is a godsend. About three years ago, I spent a week driving across Tennessee reporting out a story on disability insurance; Taco Bell was just about the only vegetarian highway food available. That story was brought to you, in substantial part, by Cheesy Gorditas Crunch.

It’s not just me. As Jenny Zhang, a staff writer at Eater and fellow vegetarian Taco Bell enthusiast, tells me, “Taco Bell has held something of a cult status to a lot of vegetarians who still like to eat fast food … It’s something that has circulated among veg bloggers for a while.”

The chain has also leaned into its plant-based popularity, partnering with a small group called the American Vegetarian Association that consults with restaurants to certify specific menu items as vegetarian. In 2019, it released a full, formal vegetarian menu, including a Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme and Black Bean Quesarito as new options.

This past March, Taco Bell rolled out a feature on in-store ordering kiosks called “Veggie Mode,” which lets customers tap a button and instantly see a menu with only veggie options, so they don’t get beef in their burrito by mistake. The company brags that 10 percent of all orders are vegetarian.

What the menu changes mean

Taco Bell became veggie-friendly the old-fashioned way, with “plant-based proteins” that have existed for millennia: beans. But in 2020, it’s for the first time facing a fast food industry that’s trying to compete with it on plant proteins.

Del Taco, a significantly smaller but still meaningful competitor to Taco Bell in the Mexican fast food market, was one of the first companies to collaborate with Beyond Meat on a plant-based meat product, in its case meatless “beef” crumbles in its tacos. The product was a massive success, with the company citing it as one of its most successful product launches ever. Del Taco was the closest competitor to the Bell to take on plant-based products, but Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, and sundry other fast food brands have been experimenting with plant-based meat, too.

Taco Bell has responded to these changes somewhat tepidly. In Europe, it’s experimenting with an “Oatrageous” taco meat built on, you guessed it, oats. It has said it’s talking with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the two main “plant-based meat” suppliers currently in the US. But for the most part, it’s relied on its existing veggie-friendly menu, which makes losing potato items and the 7-Layer Burrito without equivalent vegetarian replacements concerning.

When I sent emails to animal welfare activists working in the food industry about the issue while in a blind panic about my burritos, however, they told me to calm down. Zak Weston, food-service and supply chain manager at the Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based meat products, told me he thought the news was actually encouraging because it could be a precursor to more extensive plant-based offerings, perhaps using a meat alternative like Beyond’s or Impossible’s.

“The announcement that they are dropping some plant-forward items is understandable,” Weston says. “Taco Bell’s MO is simple and efficient operations where each ingredient has to earn its place in the pantry. Given the increasing versatility of plant-based beef and pork analogs, it wouldn’t be surprising if by swapping in a new hero ingredient like a plant-based chorizo or plant-based ground beef, they were able to add five new menu items.”

Danielle Karnbach, a publicist representing Taco Bell, reassured me, “While change is hard, the menu will still feature Taco Bell’s two original plant-based proteins, black beans and pinto beans, as well as tons of vegetarian options … Prior to COVID-19, Taco Bell’s second best-selling item across the entire U.S. menu was the Bean Burrito — a vegetarian item that will continue to stay on our menus after August 13th.”

Karnbach also suggested that Weston is right, that the menu change could be an indication of bigger plant-based opportunities to come: “Taco Bell remains committed to being the go-to spot for vegetarians. A simplified menu will leave room for continued innovation across all categories — including plant-based.”

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