Sorry, Taco Bell, But Vegans Deserve Better Nacho Cheese

The new vegan nacho cheese sauce at Taco Bell feels like a consolation prize.

Taco Bell has brought back its Nacho Fries for the 12 millionth time, but there's something very unique about this latest release: You can now order the fries with a side of vegan nacho cheese. That means that for the very first time, Taco Bell's new big limited-time nationwide offering is a certified vegan one.

In this case, "vegan" means no animal products are in the fries or the cheese sauce—the Vegan Nacho Sauce is soy and chickpea-based—but Taco Bell did mention in its announcement that because there's a shared kitchen, the company can't guarantee a lack of cross-contact. Still, it's nice to see the chain catering to the vegan crowd that has long upheld Taco Bell as a great option for non-meat-eaters.

Nacho cheese sauce has always been one of Taco Bell's greatest strengths. How has the chain managed to execute a vegan version of this classic menu staple? I visited my local Taco Bell to do a side-by-side comparison and find out.

Investigating Taco Bell’s new Vegan Nacho Sauce

After I purchased the fries along with both sides of nacho sauce, I uncapped them and performed a visual inspection. Just look at the photo above for a second and see if you can figure out which is which.

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If you guessed that the one on the right is the vegan version, you'd be correct. You can see that it sort of lacks that opaque quality of the original, with more of a slightly translucent appearance and a slightly darker (but not richer) color. Even if the visual differences didn't tip you off, though, don't worry—the vegan tub comes with a big sticker on the lid that says "VEGAN."

How does Taco Bell’s new Vegan Nacho Sauce taste?

Let's start with the good things about the new Vegan Nacho Sauce. The first one is that its texture is spot-on. It's glossy and thick, and it clings well to the Nacho Fries. I've tasted some vegan cheese substitutes that are somewhat grainy, but Taco Bell's newest release doesn't have that problem at all. And though it's a little thinner than the regular nacho sauce, its color is that ideal golden yellow we've come to expect from any cheese sauce dispensed from a pump. The flavor, however, is where things start to go off the rails.

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The very first fry I dipped was good, if not great, and if I hadn't known this was vegan liquid "cheese," I wouldn't have thought twice about it. The sauce has a nice little kick at the end, too. But after subsequent dips, I started to notice something felt off.

There's a strange aftertaste to the Vegan Nacho Sauce, one that's just slightly bitter and becomes steadily more plastic-like—needless to say, it gets to be pretty unpleasant after a while. I noticed that my fellow taste-tester, my wife, quickly stopped eating the Vegan Nacho Sauce altogether.

Later, she remarked that it totally lacked any creaminess to it, which was an aspect I hadn't thought about, but she was right. While the texture was solid—no graininess, velvety smooth—the faux cheese lacked that pleasant, mouth-coating creaminess that dairy products provide. That might have been acceptable on its own, but the "off" flavors knocked the whole experience down several pegs.

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A direct comparison to the real deal confirmed what my wife said. The regular cheese sauce is a little thicker and clings to the palate for an altogether more pleasant experience. The classic nacho cheese also has a more well-rounded flavor to it, without any trace of the bitterness that plagues the vegan version.

It's frustrating, because I feel like Taco Bell started to get pretty close to the finish line, but somehow veered off-course. I realize that vegan "dairy" is one of the hardest things to get right—dairy contains a specific protein, casein, that remains elusive to replicate in a plant-based form, and it probably becomes an even bigger obstacle when produced on a mass scale the way fast food is.

It's not that the Vegan Nacho Sauce needs to be perfect. We already know it's not bound to be; most vegan items aren't 100% convincing dupes. But this is the sort of product that only makes sense to introduce if people can get excited enough about it to add it to their orders again and again. Without a pleasant flavor all the way through, that probably won't happen.

Taco Bell really wants to cater to vegans, which is great, but further R&D is needed in the Taco Bell test kitchen. Strictly adherent vegans (those who follow this diet on principle) probably aren't coming to Taco Bell in the first place, since cross-contact in a high volume kitchen is inevitable, and this new Vegan Nacho Sauce won't change that. As for the rest of Taco Bell's plant-based customers, they deserve an option that doesn't leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

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