This registered dietitian is determined to give the well-loved chain a healthy upgrade.

Jonathan Kauffman
June 10, 2020
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Kremer Johnson Photography

White Castle and Burger King may have made a splash by adopting the Impossible Burger, but when Taco Bell added a vegetarian section to every store menu in 2019, it didn’t rely on plant-based meats. “We’ve had beans on our menu for 50 years,” says Missy Schaaphok, RDN for Taco Bell.

Only a few months after joining Taco Bell’s product development team in 2011, Schaaphok, already a trained dietitian, convinced her boss to make her its first-ever in-house registered dietitian, charged with improving nutrition at the quick-service chain. Early projects included adding an online nutrition calculator and reducing the sodium in Taco Bell’s food by 15%. (She’s aiming for a 25% reduction by 2025.) Larger challenges followed: removing preservatives and artificial trans fats, switching to cage-free eggs.

When we’re talking about a chain with more than 7,000 locations nationwide, subtle shifts can produce astonishing numbers. By shrinking the largest cup size from 40 ounces to 30, for instance, Schaaphok was able to delete 800 million grams of added sugars annually from customers’ diets. And that 15% slash in sodium? It took the equivalent of 1.5 million pounds of salt off Taco Bell’s menu.

Schaaphok says that her proudest achievement, and the one that caught our eye this year, is her seven-year-long effort to increase Taco Bell’s vegetarian and vegan options—working with the American Vegetarian Association to reformulate recipes and certify 41 ingredients. Some, like the Bean Burrito, are classics. Others, such as the 430-calorie Black Bean Power Bowl, are newer. And diners can now easily customize items to replace meat with pinto or black beans.

Since the “Vegetarian Favorites” section appeared on store menus last year, vegetarian items have risen from 6% to 10% of total sales, or more than 350 million items per year. And Schaaphok’s ensuring that the number of more-healthful dishes—at prices that more Americans can afford—continues to grow. “I think it’s really important,” she says, “for people to have options that they can feel good about eating.”