Panera is about to announce a radical plan for all artificial additives in the food it sells: junk 'em.
Amid growing consumer concern about the ingredients in foods purchased in restaurants and grocery stores, one of the nation's most successful fast-casual dining chains on Tuesday will announce plans to dump all artificial additives from its food menu by the end of 2016. That means no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives in any of the hundreds of food items it sells.
Separately, beverages will be a future focus. Panera is working to remove high-fructose corn syrup from many of them.
"I want to serve food that I want to eat," says Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of Panera, in a phone interview. The 1,800-store chain was among the first 10 years ago to restrict its chicken to those raised without antibiotics, and among the first to voluntarily post calorie counts on its menu board.
The latest move comes as several other like-minded chains — including Chipotle and Starbucks — also have pushed to reduce artificial additives, in large part to appeal to Millennial customers who are particularly sensitive about added ingredients. It may nudge some other fast-food chains to take similar moves. Consumers' worry about additives in recent years has pulled even — or surpassed — other key nutritional concerns such as sugar, sodium and calories.
Among the additives that will be dumped from these Panera foods:
• Deli smoked turkey: potassium lactate, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite and sodium diacetate.
• Horseradish: calcium disodium EDTA.
• Citrus Pepper Chicken: maltodextrin, potassium lactate.
• Cilantro Jalapeño Hummus: ascorbic acid and tocopherol, tara gum, carrageenan, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.
• Summer corn chowder: tapioca Dextrin, modified corn starch, autolyzed yeast extract, maltodextrin, coconut oil derived from triglycerides, artificial flavors.
• Roast beef: caramel color.
"Panera's intention to eliminate artificial food additives is an important step in the right direction," says Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.
A key driver for Panera: the Millennial push. Increasingly, "Millennials understand that prevention is far better than reacting to a disease" says Shaich. Beyond removing additives from old products, the chain's "intentions," says Shaich, are to hold the vast majority of its new products to this same standard.
The hardest part, he says, is pushing all suppliers to conform. "We have to go to our vendors, and they have to go to their vendors," says Shaich.
That's something that Chipotle understands. While none of the food that Chipotle itself makes has any artificial ingredients, some of food that's supplied to the chain — including some tortillas and sodas — has them, says spokesman Chris Arnold. "Right now, our focus on tortillas is eliminating GMO (genetically modified organism) ingredients, which we hope to complete this year."
In 2009, Starbucks committed to the removal of artificial flavors, dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners from its food — and removing artificial preservatives "wherever possible," says spokeswoman Lisa Passé.
Even then, says Jacobson, "these changes don't turn Panera into a health food emporium." Many of its breads are still made with white flour instead of whole wheat, and many of its pastries and cakes are loaded with sugar, he says. And its Italian combo sandwich, with 2,850 milligrams of sodium "is way more sodium than someone should have in an entire day."
But, Shaich says, while Panera does sell some indulgent products, it has an increasingly strong commitment to "clean" ingredients and menu transparency. "When you understand what you're eating, you're more likely to make choices in your self interest."