Early today, Panera announced it would omit a long list of artificial flavorings, controversial sweeteners, and preservatives from its menu items by 2016. The company wide decision was first reported by the New York Times.
The full list of ingredients has not yet been released, but includes Acesulfame K., an artificial sweetener; Ethoxyquin, a preservative; artificial smoke flavor, a flavor enhancer; and titanium dioxide, a common food whitener that is also a key pigment in white paint.
Ron Shaich, CEO of Panera told the Times: "We're trying to draw a line in the sand in the industry so that consumers have an easy way to know what's in the food they buy."
"People are continuing to be much more conscious of what they put in their bodies."
Chipotle, already a champion of sustainable food and natural ingredients, recently announced it was eliminating all GMO foods from its menu. In February, Nestle announced it would halt use of artificial ingredients by this year's end. Even McDonald's jumped on the good-for-you train when it announced it would cease use of (most) antibiotics in its chicken and dairy products this year.
While it's nice that companies are trying to do the right thing, the trend obviously isn't based solely on goodwill. Companies are putting their money where their mouth is: America's growing awareness of what artificial ingredients and highly processed foods can do to the body has affected the bottom lines at Chipotle, Nestlé, McDonald's, and, likely, every major chain. It was only a matter of time before the country's biggest brands yielded to popular opinion.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Shaich alluded to his family's concerns: "I want to serve everyone the food I want my daughter to eat. And if I feel uncomfortable about serving her some of this stuff, I don't want anyone else to eat it." But he also admitted the motivation behind the decision was consumer demand: "People are continuing to be much more conscious of what they put in their bodies."
One of the main menu items Panera's culinary directors needed to reformulate was its salad dressings. It's hard to believe that a major overhaul of a brand's image was required before Panera decided to simplify its salad dressing ingredients to the basics: oil, mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Said Shaich, "This stuff tastes great. You can taste the difference. It doesn't have that coating on your tongue."
But will what works for socially, environmentally, and nutritionally conscious chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack work for America's biggest chains? Time will tell.