(Jan. 7, SENIOR WRITER'S COLUMN) Taco Bell has rolled out several new menu items that will mean big business for Yum! Brands’ produce suppliers if the reduced-fat options cause more Americans to run for the border.

Taco Bell took nine of its regular menu items, cut out the cheese and sauce and replaced those ingredients with a mix of diced tomatoes, white onions and cilantro. The result is nine new “Fresco” menu items that each contain less than nine grams of fat.

This is not a limited-time offer.

Taco Bell plans to post dedicated Fresco menu boards in its restaurants and in drive-through lanes. There also will be point-of-purchase materials, such as tray liners, in restaurants. Print ads comparing the Fresco menu items to hamburgers will appear in women’s magazines and fitness publications, likely daring consumers to think outside the bun (whatever that means).

There’s no word yet on whether the long-lost Taco Bell chihuahua will reappear and give us a new catchphrase. With or without the pint-sized pooch, the Fresco menu will be seen by plenty of people. Taco Bell says it serves 36.8 million consumers a week in its 5,600 U.S. restaurants.

This, however, doesn’t look like a win-win situation.

While its new menu items might help Taco Bell’s tomato, onion and cilantro suppliers increase their sales, dieting consumers aren’t going to be saved by the Bell.

Cutting the cheese and sauce out of a crunchy taco cuts the fat content from 10 grams to eight grams and reduces calories from 170 to 150, but the supposedly healthy new option has 370 milligrams of sodium, or 20 more than a regular Taco Bell taco.

The same goes for the chain’s soft tacos. The Fresco version has 20 fewer calories and two fewer grams of fat, but it has 20 more milligrams of sodium than a regular soft taco.

Sorry, Taco Bell. Yo no quiero salt.

Any of this ring a bell?

It reminds me of several years ago when Taco Bell launched the first incarnation of its taco salad. Most people hear the word salad and assume it’s a healthy product. Too bad I ate dozens of the things before I found out they had 610 calories — or 70 more than a Big Mac — and 50% of my daily recommended fat intake.

Over the years, Taco Bell has added a few variations of its taco salad, including a “fiesta” version that has a whopping 840 calories — more than a Burger King Triple Stacker hamburger — and 69% of your daily recommended fat.

Finding healthy options in our fast-food world isn’t easy, but consumers looking to shed weight in 2008 should look elsewhere. You probably won’t find Jared — the annoying Subway pitchman — munching on a Fresco Zesty Chicken Border Bowl and its 350 calories and 1,600 milligrams of sodium, which is 67% of the daily recommended total for salt.

Those numbers, by the way, don’t include the dressing.

Americans concerned with the obesity epidemic might take some comfort in the fact that we are not alone.

A BBC poll of consumers in 13 countries recently revealed that more Britons are addicted to fast food than Americans, but just barely.

Subjects were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “I like the taste of fast food too much to give it up.” Agence France Presse reports that 45% of Britons, 44% of Americans and 37% of Canadians agreed.

On the other end of the spectrum, 81% of French subjects disagreed.

The French do a lot of things that make no sense. (Remember Le Car?) But in this case they got it right.