Taco Bell affair publicity boosts Cargill's Trehalose ingredient

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sodium chloride Meat

The recent furor over the ingredients in Taco Bell’s taco meat has had an unintended positive effect for one of its suppliers. Cargill reports higher interest in its Trehalose additive after all of the publicity connected to the affair reverberated though the marketplace.

Taco Bell has been dealing with questions about the content of its taco meat filling for several years. The chain was first sued in 2011 in a class action that claimed the company was defrauding customers by offering a product that didn’t include much meat. The suit claimed there was only 35% actual beef in the filling, and the product should be renamed to reflect this. The food chain successfully defended itself (the suit was dropped), claiming that the filling actually had 88% beef and the other 12% was made up of ingredients necessary to improve taste and texture.

A recent segment on ABC's Good Morning America​ revisited the affair and focused on those ingredients and on Taco Bell’s website that discloses them all and discusses why they are there. Trehalose, a functional carbohydrate additive, was one of these.  

Positive publicity

The old saw is that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but much of the coverage of food additives in the mainstream media in recent years has been overheated. The underlying mindset seems to have been that these ingredients are unnatural and not very healthy and are only in food to boost the profits of the food producers, who would rather that consumers not know about these ingredients. With that backdrop, Cargill executives were pleasantly surprised with the fallout from the affair.

“I think we came out as neutral to positive,” ​Deborah Schulz, product manager for Cargill, told FoodNavigator-USA. “I think Taco Bell did a very good job of explaining why they are using it. What we are getting is a lot more curiosity about the ingredient.”

Trehalose, which is made from starch via a proprietary process, has some powerful benefits for applications like Taco Bell’s meat, said Alan Skradis, technical services manager for corn milling for Cargill.  Rather than just being a coating or binding agent, the complex sugar works on a molecular level to imprpove the finished product.

“Trehalose is a nautrally occurring dissacharide. It is commercially manufactured from starch through a proprietary process. In meats it can be used to suppress protein denaturization. The molecule has a strong hydrophilic property, and it leads to less moisture loss.  It improves the texture of the finished product because with more moisture, you have less hardness in the cooked meat,” ​Skradis said.

The ingredient was first developed by the Japanese company Nagase, with Cargill partnering on the sale of the ingredient in North America. One of its first uses was in the manufacture of surimi, the white fish paste that can be textured, flavored and colored to resemble crab or lobster.  While other saccharides might perform some of the same functions, they are too sweet for such an application, and Japanese consumers don’t like things as sweet as Americans do in general, Skradis said. Trehalose is about 40% as sweet as sucrose.

But after the ingredient’s entry into the North American market, new applications arose as consumer preferences and health targets shifted. It was discoverd that the ingredient could help manufacturers reach sodium reduction goals, Skradis said.

“It can be used as an effective masking agent in meats. When manufacturers were looking to reduce sodium, they were replacing sodium chloride with potassium chloride. Trehaolse actually masks that bitter, metallic taste you get with potassium chloride quite efficiently when compared to dextrose or sucrose. We found we could really push the limit with up to 75% sodium reduction,”​ he said.

Trehalose can also be used to limit the strucutural damage that occurs in products that undergo a freeze/thaw cycle on their way to the consumer. As ice crystals grow in a product, their jagged edges rupture cell walls, which accounts for the soggy nature of some thawed foods.  Trehalose helps reduce this damage, Skradis said, which was one of its first benefits in surimi, which needed to be firm in the refrigerator case.

“In systems that use Trehalose, the ice crysals are smaller in size and less jagged in shape,” ​Skradis said. “It helps to control that damage.”

Long tunnel 

Bringing any new ingredient to market can be a journey through a long tunnel with an uncertain light at the end. Much work needs to be done to first explain the ingredient to an unfamiliar audience, and then to build up a track record of application success and to find new applications. Trehalose seems to have turned that corner, and the Taco Bell publicity can only help, Schulz said.

“We’ve been in this business for about 10 years. In the first five years you slog along just trying to get people to understand what it is and what it can do.  Then all of a sudden the ingredient becomes a hot property.

“Trehalose has so many applications (it can extend shelf life in baked goods, for example).  It can enhance crunchiness in snack crackers. I like to think of it as a smart phone that has so many apps,”​ she said.

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