From Panera To McDonalds, Brands Move To ‘Un-Engineer’ Menus: Where That Matters, And Where It Doesn't


Panera Bread has joined the list of food chains moving to a more natural menu. But does this matter for our health, or are these decisions based solely on consumer demand? (Photo: Panera Bread on Instagram)

In the last six months, several food companies and restaurant chains like Kraft, Nestle, Pepsi, Chipotle, and McDonald’s have announced that they’re planning to eliminate certain ingredients from their products. Now, Panera Bread has joined that list.

The food chain announced Tuesday that it will remove more than 150 ingredients in an effort to “un-engineer” its menu. On the chopping block: artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and preservatives. According to Panera, approximately 85 percent of the ingredients on their menu are in testing or have rolled out nationally without these artificial ingredients. They say they will continue the rollout in order to meet their self-imposed 2016 deadline.

What does this mean for consumers? 

Not much—as far as we know, says New Jersey-based registered dietitian nutritionist Robyn Flipse, RDN.

“All of the ingredients mentioned have been have been approved for their intended use by the Food and Drug Administration and safely consumed for decades,” she tells Yahoo Health. “The decisions being made by some food companies and restaurants to eliminate or replace them is not because there is new evidence of harm from using them.”

Related: 10 Natural Alternatives To Sugar — How Healthy Are They, Really? 

Registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University, agrees. “This is a consumer trend,” she tells Yahoo Health. “People want to be able to pronounce ingredients on the foods that they’re eating and are skeptical when they can’t.”

While transparency is important, Blake points out that people may balk at an ingredient that is actually something healthy. “People can get nervous when they see ascorbic acid, but it’s actually vitamin C,” she says.

That said, research has questioned some of the ingredients that Panera is removing. Here are just a few that are on the brand’s “no-no list”:

Acesulfame K: This calorie-free sugar substitute is safe for use, per the FDA, and is much sweeter than sugar. However, a 2006 study published in the journalEnvironmental Health Perspectives concluded that more testing is needed to determine how safe it really is.

Ethoxyquin: This food preservative is commonly found in pet foods. It is not permitted in foods for people, except as a preserving agent for powdered paprika and chili, and for use to prevent brown spots on pears and apples. Research published in the International Journal of Food Science found that ethoxyquin is safe for use in recommended doses.

Artificial smoke flavor: The A-word is a big no-no with consumers, says Blake. However, we may be on to something with this one: Research published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2013 found that smoky flavoring could be damaging our DNA at levels comparable to taking chemotherapy drugs.

Why are the changes being made now?

Blake says it’s because people are more pressed for time and getting takeout more often, while also wanting to have fresh food like they were served when they were growing up. “Millennials especially are into farm-to-table, but they don’t want to be the farmers,” she says.

Panera joins other brands in making a move toward a more natural ingredient list. Nestle is removing all artificial sweeteners and flavors from its products, Kraft is replacing the artificial coloring that gives its Macaroni & Cheese its orange color with spices like turmeric and paprika, and Pepsi has announced plans to use sucralose instead of aspartame to sweeten Diet Pepsi.

Related: 5 Natural Ways To Prevent Diabetes

While Pepsi is being applauded for its change, it’s still swapping one artificial sweetener for another, points out Blake. Research published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that sucralose (via Splenda) can alter gut bacteria and limit the effectiveness of certain medications.

McDonald’s has also announced that it will stop using chicken treated with human antibiotics—a move that Blake says is a good one. “If a human contracts a foodborne illness from these animal food sources, treatment with the same antibiotic that was used in the feed (which killed the bacteria in the past) may no longer be effective,” she explains. By using chicken that is not treated with human antibiotics, it therefore can lower the odds that a person will build up a resistance to certain antibiotics.

Related: Can Antibiotics In Early Life Put Your Child At Risk? 

While there is a chance that ditching artificial ingredients for more natural ones is beneficial for us, Flipse stresses that it’s still important to focus on what you’re eating. “If cookies are made with pure cane sugar and butter instead of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, you still can’t eat all you want of them,” she says. “A healthy diet requires making the right food choices in the right amounts day in and day out.”

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