Panera to Artificial Additives: We're Subtracting You

Many things in modern life are inevitably complex. But does food have to be one of them?

When you buy a salad at a restaurant, for example, does the dressing need to come with a list of ingredients that only a chemist could understand and a linguist could pronounce?

And why are all those ingredients in our food in the first place? What are they doing there?

Questions like these have been asked increasingly in recent years, including by the people of our company. They're a reflection of our corporate DNA, which has led us from the beginning to bake our bread fresh from fresh dough every day. But we've been especially focused on these issues for the last five to seven years, since we first moved to eliminate artificial trans-fats (2007) and then added MSG (2009) from our menu.

The answer we've come to is sweeping. We intend to remove all artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors and preservatives- from our bakery-cafe food menu by the end of 2016.

This may sound simple, but it's not. First, it would have been much easier - and more consistent with industry practices -- if we had chosen to go after only one or two ingredients; instead, we're taking a holistic, across-the-board approach. Second, we're a big organization. So while it's one thing for the proprietor of a fine independent restaurant to adopt this kind of approach, it's another for a company, like ours, that has almost 1,800 bakery-cafes and feeds eight million people every week. Perhaps that's why we're not aware of any other restaurant concept at our scale attempting such broad-based change.

Scale does pose challenges. You don't just pick up the phone and order a million new bottles of salad dressing- the way you order a pizza. And some of our suppliers may not want to participate with us in this push to clean our menu of unnecessary ingredients. So we may indeed have to find some new ones.

But we believe it's worth the effort. Here's why:

Almost all of the additives are there for one of three reasons: shelf life, convenience, or cheaper food. For example, calcium Disodium EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, for all you aspiring chemists) extends shelf life; without it, salad dressing lasts no more than 14 days, compared to as many as 180 days with it. Many emulsifiers, on the other hand, provide convenience; their addition to salad dressings reduces the amount of bottle shaking that the consumer or the restaurant has to do to mix the dressing. And vanillin is a synthetic ingredient that makes baked goods cheaper, because it's less costly than natural vanilla, which is derived from various species of orchids.

In a sense, all three of these reasons boil down to the last one: cheaper food. One way or another, they help minimize the restaurant company's expenses.

They don't, however, do something that we believe is crucial, at least to our consumers: They don't improve taste - which for us is the single most important food attribute. In fact, their removal often improves the sensory experience of eating whatever foods that contained them. Their removal elevates the taste of our products. So while other companies are adding ingredients, we've deconstructed ours. In this removal process, we've pushed back on conventional wisdom that this unnatural "stuff" ever needed to be there in the first place. And one process has led to another: We're now creating our own proprietary pantry of ingredients - clean and simple - to use in the production of our food.

Better taste is one benefit we see to the consumer in removing these additives. And as we wean our menu off all these artificial additives, we'll start with the ones that have the greatest impact on taste.

Putting the taste issue aside, however, we acknowledge a basic preference in favor of simple and clean ingredients. This preference has permeated the way we do business. It's behind our decision, for example, to offer only raised-without-antibiotic chicken, breakfast sausage, roasted turkey and ham for our salads and sandwiches.

And in turn, this preference is ultimately an expression of our overall food policy which we sum up in four words: "Food you can trust." We think clean, simple food, the kind made with ingredients your grandmother would recognize and that you'd find in your own pantry, is part of food you can trust. Our Food Policy is meant to provide a roadmap for us and accountability for continuous improvement.

All of this, however, is not to say that food science doesn't have a role to play in keeping food safe. It does. We'll continue, for example, to use items like vinegar and citric acid to balance pH and ensure that our products are safe for their entire shelf life.

But for us anyway, removing artificial additives is the right thing to do. And we wouldn't be surprised if more customers of other restaurant chains began asking those companies' executives to follow the path we're taking. We encourage them to join us in the hard road ahead.