This Is Surprisingly One Of The Healthiest Fast Food Chains

Among fast food chains, Taco Bell might best be known for off-the-wall menu items that seem to sacrifice health and common decency for never-before-experienced taste sensations. Does anyone remember the Naked Chicken Chalupa, with a taco shell made of fried chicken? Or the Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch: a taco inside a puff pastry layered with bacon and cheese? Well, the Bell is generating a very different type of buzz these days, as one of the healthiest fast food establishments in America (via Taste of Home).

Taco Bell has not been trumpeting this in its marketing campaigns, but it has spent the past decade improving the health profile of its menu. The company created the position of in-house dietician in 2012 (via Skift), and that person has been leading a low-key but serious overhaul of Taco Bell food ever since.

The menu isn't healthier because the unhealthy stuff is gone. In fact, sales figures show that people still pull up to the restaurant for guilty pleasures. The 20-ounce Mtn Dew Baja Blast Freeze, with 51 grams of sugar — that's almost an eighth of a pound! — has generated more than $1 billion in sales (via Beverage Industry). Many of the wackiest calorie bombs were limited offers you won't find today, but you can still load up with a Nachos BellGrande, at 740 calories (340 calories from fat).

Taco Bell's new menu is about choice as much as health

Taco Bell did make a few healthy changes to its overall menu, such as reducing sodium content by 15 percent, getting rid of high fructose corn syrup, and eliminating artificial flavors and colors. The fast food chain plans to knock sodium levels down 25 percent by 2025. Taco Bell's dietician, Missy Schaaphok, called these moves "stealth health" because customers couldn't taste the difference. She and her team also got the opportunity to develop a new menu item from scratch, with the specific aim of creating something healthy. The new item needed to be less than 510 calories with at least 20 grams of protein, as reported by Skift. The result, called the Power Menu Bowl, which includes grilled chicken or steak with rice and beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, and guacamole has been a sales success.

The key to the restaurant's healthier philosophy can be summed up in one word: choice. Taco Bell claims on its online menu to be the first fast-food establishment with a vegetarian menu certified by the American Vegetarian Association. These options are displayed prominently in the mobile app, where customers can best appreciate Taco Bell's revamp. 

What are the biggest fast food calorie bombs?

Click on your favorite meal on the Taco Bell app, and you can customize it any way you want. Order the Nachos BellGrande vegetarian style, for example, and you knock off 70 calories. Customers may also go healthier and knock up to 25 percent off fat off their order by getting their meal "Fresco style," which according to the chain "replaces mayo-based sauces, cheeses, reduced-fat sour cream and guacamole on almost any menu item with freshly-prepared pico de gallo." Of course, the handy customizing function on the Taco Bell app works both ways. If you ask for extra beef in your Quesarito (650 calories), and tell them to throw in some avocado ranch sauce, then you've just tacked on 150 calories.

Comparing the relative healthiness of different fast-food menus is complicated, but we can have the chains go head-to-head to see who has the biggest calorie bomb. Taco Bell's heaviest hitter is the aforementioned 740 calorie Nachos BellGrande. However, many menu items hover in the 300- to 400-calorie range. Compare that to Burger King, for instance, who has several offerings in the four-figure calorie range. Leading the way is the Triple Whopper with cheese at 1,220 calories. 

Taco Bell isn't the only fast food to make changes to their offerings

These options would lead you to think that fast food is the best thing that's ever happened to the meat industry. After all, 6.4 billion hamburgers a year are sold in the United States (via The Columbian). However, as enduringly popular as beef remains at these establishments, several are also making a direct appeal to vegans. In other words, Taco Bell isn't the only fast-food restaurant with a Jekyll-Hyde personality. 

Beef powerhouses such as Burger King and Carl's Jr. have come up with meatless alternatives, including the Impossible Whopper — although strict vegans have turned up their noses because the meatless patty is cooked on the same grill as the traditional burgers unless you ask for your patty to be microwaved (via Markets Insider). Carl's Jr., meanwhile, offers both plant-based burgers and breakfast sausages. Wendy's, Del Taco, and even Baskin Robbins also offer explicitly vegan menus (via One Green Planet). 

Whether it's a healthy power bowl or a triple-stacked burger, fast food outlets actually seem to have a coherent vision: to offer something for everyone, and Taco Bell continues to do it right.