Two years after Panera announced its commitment to "clean" eating, the mega-chain announced in January 2017 that it had reached the finish line. Panera systematically eliminated the 96 ingredients on its No No List, ingredients as varied (and common) as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein and FD&C colors. “Panera is the first national restaurant company to make such a comprehensive commitment and, more importantly, to meet it,” the company proclaimed.
It won’t be the last, however. Many of the nation’s largest restaurant chains are working to clear their menus of ingredients that health-conscious consumers find objectionable, and 2017 may be the year that “clean eating” truly goes mainstream in the foodservice industry. Is it worth making the switch? Here’s a closer look at what the big brands are doing.
Eliminating artificial ingredients
Artificial anything has become a villain in recent years, although many artificial ingredients have been shown to be innocuous. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a pretty tough food-industry watchdog, considers many of Panera’s “no-nos” to be just fine, such as propylene glycol alginate, which thickens salad dressings, and datem (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides), a dough conditioner.
Serving clean food with no artificial ingredients isn’t easy. Panera had to negotiate with 300 of its food vendors and change most of its recipes. Natural flavors can be subtler. Natural colors have a shorter shelf life, and sometimes impart an off-flavor to foods, because they’re derived from plants. FD&C Red No. 40, the familiar crimson used in red velvet cake, is particularly hard to replicate, Food Business News reports.
Who’s doing it?
- Subway, still the world’s largest restaurant chain, announced in 2015 that it would get rid of all artificial additives by 2017. Its banana peppers are now colored with turmeric instead of Yellow No. 5, and its turkey is preserved with vinegar instead of propionic acid.
- McDonald’s recently removed artificial preservatives from several menu items, including Chicken McNuggets, scrambled eggs and the pork sausage patties and omelet-style eggs served on McGriddles, bagel and biscuit breakfast sandwiches.
- Taco Bell announced that by 2018, it would remove preservatives and other additives from its food, “where possible,” in U.S. restaurants.
- Chick-Fil-A has slowly and stealthily been removing artificial ingredients, such as the yellow dye in its ice cream and TBHQ, an oil preservative.
- Papa John’s is spending an extra $100 million per year to replace artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from its menu.
Reducing salt, sugar and corn syrup in menu items
Fully 65 percent of consumers say they want to cut back on sugar or eliminate it entirely, according to research from The NPD Group. And sodium has long been known to contribute to hypertension and heart disease. Restaurants are listening, although efforts to shave sugar and salt from menus aren’t yet widespread. While “80 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed and restaurant foods,” CSPI reports, the nation's top 25 restaurant chains failed to significantly reduce sodium levels between 2012 and 2014.
Who’s doing it?
- Taco Bell is virtually synonymous with salty, spicy flavors, but the chain says it will continue to cut sodium from its food — slowly. By 2025, the chain says, it will have reduced sodium by 25 percent from 2008 levels.
- McDonald’s has removed high-fructose corn syrup from its buns.
- Taco Bell is getting rid of XL-size soda cups in 2017.
Eliminating meats that contain antibiotics
The practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals began all the way back in 1950, when researchers found that antibiotics made animals grow faster. Even then, however, scientists raised the alarm that this would render many medicines useless for treating humans, as bacteria became resistant to the antibiotics that were supposed to kill them.
Now, many chain restaurants are pledging to eliminate or reduce the use of meat with antibiotics, although sourcing is a challenge. Chick-Fil-A, for instance, found that “there simply wasn’t enough chicken available on the market to meet this new, rigorous standard for every Chick-fil-A restaurant.” The chain is working with suppliers, and says it will serve chicken that’s totally antibiotic-free in every store by the end of 2019.
Who’s doing it?
- Noodles & Co. has committed to serving meat free of antibiotics and hormones by 2017. It’s also testing hormone-free cheese sauce for rollout nationwide.
- McDonald’s no longer serves chicken treated with antibiotics “important to human medicine.”
We haven’t even touched on ethically raised meats, cage-free eggs or the use of palm oil — but we will. Is your business joining the clean-food revolution? How are you handling sourcing challenges? Tell us about it here! We’re always looking for industry innovators to feature on our blog, which reaches an international community of Hamilton Beach Commercial clients.