Panera Bread Co. committed itself to removing at least 150 artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives from its menu by the end of next year, the latest move by a major food company to respond to a consumer shift toward foods seen as simpler and more healthful.
The sandwich-and-salad chain, which has nearly 1,900 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, plans to eliminate ingredients such as fat substitutes and propylene glycol, a preservative used in consumer products as diverse as deodorant and electronic cigarettes. It has been working on the plans since 2012, and already has cut ingredients like sucralose, an artificial sweetener, and titanium dioxide, used to whiten mozzarella cheese.
The changes by Panera—a company already among leaders in reacting to health trends such as the growing preference for meat raised without antibiotics—highlight the complexity of revamping restaurant supply chains to adapt to fast-changing consumer tastes.
Panera’s move will apply to soups, sandwiches, salad dressings and many baked goods, but artificial ingredients will remain in some products, including soda.
Consumers “know they should be eating better, but they’re not always sure how to do that,” said Ron Shaich, Panera’s chief executive officer, in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is give people a simple, easy, Good Housekeeping seal-of-approval kind of approach to it.”
Other food makers recently have made similar moves. In February, Nestlé SA said it would remove artificial flavors and colors from its Crunch, Butterfinger candy bars and other chocolates in the U.S. Last week, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. said it had mostly completed removing genetically modified ingredients from its supply chain amid growing consumer concerns about the agricultural technology.
Panera’s announcement carries some risk by spotlighting the dozens of artificial ingredients the company still relies on. Eliminating artificial ingredients while preserving taste and other qualities that draw in consumers is also difficult and doesn’t necessarily mean the length of ingredient lists will shrink. The company’s reformulated Greek salad dressing will have 19 items on its ingredient lists compared with 18 when artificial products were present, the company said.
But Panera has revamped its products before to try to stay at the forefront of consumer trends. The St. Louis company committed itself a decade ago to buying chicken raised without any antibiotics amid growing concerns that overuse was hampering their effectiveness in human medicine. It also in 2008 abolished trans fats, which can preserve products’ shelf life but have been linked to heart attacks and strokes.
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