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Taco Bell’s Healthy Menu Options Drove Us to Taste-Test the Naked Chicken Chalupa

In the end, we came to regret both equally

A couple weeks ago, the MEL editorial staff taste-tested Taco Bell’s new “healthy” menu. While the 560-calorie plate was relatively palatable, it mostly made us long for the real Taco Bell: late-night munchies-busting Tex-Mex drenched in fat, salt and regret that seems worth it at the time. Like the XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito Beef, a monument to gluttony that takes a kitchen-sink approach to burrito making — with three cheeses, seasoned beef, seasoned rice, refried beans, sour cream, guacamole and avocado ranch sauce.

Not that we should’ve been surprised. Nutritionist David Wiss had warned us that regular Taco Bell customers who switch to healthier options would likely return to more craveable items before long.

It took us 19 days.

Our Run-for-the-Border relapse was triggered by the arrival of the long-awaited “Naked Chicken Chalupa.” I first heard about it during my health-food run to Taco Bell earlier this month, when a pair of Santa Monica High School students in front of me were devastated to learn they’d need to wait until January 27 to experience arguably the brand’s unhealthiest offering to date: A fried chicken-shelled taco. (“The Chicken is the Shell! The Shell is the Chicken!”)

Sounds crazy… but is it?

We had to know. And given the admirable restraint we showed back in January, we felt empowered to Live Más and opt for some of Taco Bell’s most decadent dishes. We’d sampled the healthiest, now we wanted the worst — at least nutritionally.

So here’s the menu I compiled:

A) Naked Chicken Chalupa (440 calories, 30 grams of fat and 1,090 milligrams of sodium)

B) Cheesy Gordita Crunch (500 calories, 29 grams of fat and 880 milligrams sodium)

C) ½ Fiesta Taco Salad (420 calories, 22 grams of fat, 800 milligrams of sodium)

TOTAL: 1,360 calories, 81 grams of fat, 2,770 milligrams of sodium

The gleeful anticipation I felt returning to the office with four handle bags of the worst Taco Bell has to offer reminded me of having successfully procured multiple 8-balls of cocaine. There’s a similar giddiness among my colleagues, who gasp upon reveal of our bounty: 11 Naked Chicken Chalupas, 11 Cheesy Gordita Crunches and 6 Fiesta Taco Salads to share: 15,764 calories in all. (Which, incidentally, The Rock has been known to power down in one sitting.) I build individual plates for everyone and introduce each item along with its respective nutritional specs.

Unsurprisingly, most reach for the Naked Chicken Chalupa first. It’s the belle of this ball, after all. Taco Bell master chefs have replaced the thick corn tortilla that normally holds the Chalupa’s innards with a fried-chicken disk, which is then stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and an avocado ranch sauce.

“The interior of the fried chicken is mystifying,” someone says cautiously.

“It’s more like FRIED! (chicken)” reports another, referencing a 2011 lawsuit that revealed Taco Bell’s meat to be only 35 percent beef and the balance a combo of water, modified corn starch, wheat oats, soy lecithin (emulsifier), maltodextrin (artificial sugar) and anti-dusting agents (to prevent explosions in food processing plants).

The Cheesy Gordita Crunch — flatbread sprinkled with shredded cheese and wrapped around a hard shell taco topped with pepper jack sauce — doesn’t disappoint. And why should it? It’s a shitload of melted cheese, beef, random shards of lettuce and a smear campaign of zesty pepper jack sauce.

The Fiesta Taco Salad is a “salad” in name only. “It’s more like an open-faced burrito with a fried shell,” Wiss says, noting the stunningly high amount of calories (420) and fat (22 grams) for half a salad.

Curiously, the most unhealthy meal we could muster at Taco Bell actually tasted less salty than the healthier alternative last month — probably because it had virtually the same amount of sodium (2,280 milligrams vs. 2,770 milligrams, or roughly 1¼ vs. 1½ teaspoons of salt). According to Wiss, the fast-food industry has a long history of placing an emphasis on calories and fat, and ramping up the sodium to make up for reductions in both. “Last time, my tongue felt like a murdered slug,” notes a colleague. “This time, it’s more like a month-old-inverted whale carcass on a beach.”

Much like a coke binge, the comedown from this meal is swift and unsettling. “Even ecstasy has the good grace of giving you a few hours before the existential dread sets in,” someone notes with a nervous sigh. The despondency is likely related to having ingested two meals’ worth of calories and a day’s worth of sodium, Wiss explains. I thought I was going to get real pleasure out of this. But now I can only think about the fact that I can’t eat dinner tonight.

As one of my coworkers pointed out, the fact remains that fast food — even the “healthiest” kind — is probably best reserved for long road trips when reasonable options are simply unavailable.

Because this meal left us all feeling decidedly un más.