This news may feel like day-old bread, but here goes: Panera Bread is shaking up the fast-casual eatery world with its announcement to ditch more than 150 food additives by the end of 2016.
The question we're asking here at The Salt is: How much credit should the chain get for its highly orchestrated announcement? (Believe us when we say there was more than one PR firm promoting the news.)
In other words, how forward-thinking is the company? And how much are they trying to take credit for changes that are actually sweeping the entire food industry?
Here's our take: Kudos to Panera for shining a light on some of the standard practices among commercial food suppliers — such as adding titanium dioxide to mozzarella cheese in order to create an ultra-white appearance. Who needs bleach in their mozzarella, really?
Panera's head chef, Dan Kish, says that as he and his team pored over the hundreds of additives in the ingredients that Panera uses, they asked two questions: What is this? And why is it used?
When he realized that the titanium dioxide was used for cosmetic purposes, he said, "Let's just take it out."
Kish says he's not a scientist, so he doesn't want get into the debate over whether removing the additives makes the food more healthful, or less harmful. In any case, there's little evidence that many of the additives Panera is eliminating pose a measurable health risk at the amounts they're commonly used in food. We've reported, for instance, that there's little risk associated with azodicarbonamide, a chemical on the "no-no" list, despite its association as being the same compound that's in yoga mats.
Kish says he believes that the direction Panera is headed is driven much more by his philosophy of food and cooking. "We think a simplified pantry is a better pantry," he says.
Other Big Food companies like Nestle, Hershey and Kraft are also eliminating or cutting back on additives. And it's clear from survey data that more Americans favor such changes.
In January, Nielsen published a global survey showing that an increasing number of Americans say they want fresh, natural and minimally processed foods. What's more, 1 in 4 North Americans said they would pay a premium for foods that were "all natural" or contained no artificial colors.
But where Panera is not pushing new boundaries is its call to ditch trans fats. As we've reported, in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration required food companies to label the trans fats in their products. Since then, the entire food industry has cut back drastically on the use of partially hydrogenated oils. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that food manufacturers have lowered the amounts of trans fats in their food products by over 73 percent.
So, on this particular ingredient, it's hard to give Panera credit for a change that has already swept through the entire industry.
And, here's one more hiccup in Panera's "no-no" list: The company says it will not use any high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners — such as aspartame and Ace-K — in its menu items.
And yet it will continue to sell beverages, such as sodas and diet-colas, that contain these sweeteners. "It's a big omission," says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Panera's Kish says the company is working with its beverage suppliers to move in this direction. So, he says, stay tuned.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Panera, the restaurant chain, is changing its ingredients. Responding to consumer demand here, Panera has posted what it calls a no-no list of more than a hundred artificial ingredients it will stop using. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when a growing number of Americans want to know more about the ingredients that go into their food, Panera Bread has learned that its customers are turned off by artificial ingredients. A promotional video in the company's website shows real customers trying to pronounce real additives.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: As-o-car-bona-mide (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mide (ph)? Mead (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Azocarbonamide (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What are those? Are these ingredients?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is what's in food?
AUBREY: Azodicarbonamide is an additive that helps give bread a consistent texture, but you won't find it at Panera anymore. By the end of 2016, the company says its menu items will be free of more than 150 food additives, everything from artificial preservatives and colorings to emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners. Here's Panera's head chef, Dan Kish.
DAN KISH: We think a simplified pantry is a better pantry.
AUBREY: Kish says a good example is the decision to stop using mozzarella that was treated with a whitener, titanium dioxide. It's long been used in the industry for cosmetic reasons, to make mozzarella ultra-white. But Kish says the question they asked is this.
KISH: Do we have to have it? No. So let's just take it out.
AUBREY: Panera's announcement has been both applauded and criticized. Lisa Lefferts is a senior scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
LISA LEFFERTS: I think it makes sense to remove artificial colors and partially hydrogenated oils or trans-fat.
AUBREY: But the FDA has already moved to restrict trans-fats, and the entire food industry has made changes to cut back significantly. So on that particular ingredient, don't give Panera too much credit. And, Lefferts says, though Panera has put high fructose corn syrup and aspartame on its no-no list of food additives, these sweeteners will still be in beverages such as sodas and diet sodas sold at Panera, something she sees as a big gap in the company's new policy. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.