Panera Bread, Noodles & Company, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut are the latest to join the growing number of quick-service chains phasing out artificial ingredients from menus as consumers clamor for simpler, “cleaner” food. But such moves are raising eyebrows among consumer advocate groups.

Earlier this month, Panera announced plans to ditch 150 artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and preservatives from its menus by the end of 2016, saying it doesn’t want its customers eating ingredients they can’t pronounce. The so-called “No-No List” (which also includes already eliminated ingredients) targets artificial ingredients found in soups, sandwiches, salads, and certain baked goods, but excludes such products as soda.

A few days after Panera’s decision, Noodles & Company announced that it, too, would remove all artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from its soups, sauces, and dressings by the end of the third quarter this year. The chain is also testing naturally raised, antibiotic-free chicken in some Colorado restaurants, having already transitioned to antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed pork.

And this week, Yum! Brands announced that Taco Bell and Pizza Hut would remove artificial colors and flavors from most of their menu items this year, while Taco Bell will also phase out high fructose corn syrup and palm oil.

This all follows Chipotle’s decision to become the first national restaurant company to cook only with ingredients not derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which specifically applies to the corn in its tortillas and soybean oil for cooking. It also comes on the heels of McDonald’s decision to phase out chicken that includes human antibiotics.

“There’s more of a focus on health, people’s weight, and sustainable lifestyle choices that drive health and happiness.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) applauds the decisions by quick-service companies to phase out artificial ingredients that “typically don’t add any nutritional value or other real benefit that couldn’t be obtained using real food,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit.

Questions remain, however, on whether these decisions to phase out artificial ingredients and preservatives are based on sound science or are instead following misguided consumer trends.

Jacobson points out that many of the artificial ingredients getting pulled are fairly innocuous or even provide some benefits (for example, calcium propionate, an anti-molding agent in bread, adds calcium to the diet). “Mostly it’s a good PR move for these chains, though it’s nice to eat real food and not concoctions held together with texturizing agents, thickeners, preservatives, and so on,” Jacobson says.

Chipotle’s GMO announcement has likewise drawn some criticism—both for inconsistencies in its arguments concerning the safety of GMOs and for excluding soda and meat from its GMO-free policy.

Company spokesman Chris Arnold acknowledges the contentiousness of the GMO debate, adding that the Denver-based chain is less concerned with the short-term impact of eating GMO crops on human health than the long-term problems associated with GMO-based farming—particularly the GMO crops engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, which depletes soil health and may pose human health risks.

“This March, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans,’” Arnold says. “We simply believe that more research, particularly longer-term and independent research, should be done on GMOs, and have opted to remove them from our food given those concerns.”

He adds that the chain is considering an eventual phase-out of soft drinks and meat with GMOs, though both present considerable operational challenges.

“We started by removing GMOs from the ingredients we use to make our food because that is where our ability to affect change is greatest,” he says. “Eliminating GMOs from animal feed would be very difficult, given how prevalent GMO corn and soybeans are (90 percent of corn and soybean crops in the U.S. are GMO). Beverages are a different challenge, but still quite challenging, though we have been testing root beer from Maine Root, which is non-GMO, in some restaurants in Denver.” 

Jacobson says the assumption that GMOs are dangerous is largely based on misinformation.

“In many cases, the supposed offending ingredients—such as soybean oil, corn oil, cornstarch, canola oil, and sugar from sugar beets—are completely indistinguishable from GMO versions, because there’s no modified DNA or protein in these very pure ingredients,” he says.

Regardless of the criticisms, what all these announcements have in common is that they reflect a global secular trend toward better health and nutrition, says Rick Altizer, CEO of Elevation Burger.

“It’s not just about antibiotics, artificial ingredients, or GMOs,” Altizer says. “There’s more of a focus on health, people’s weight, and sustainable lifestyle choices that drive health and happiness.”

In March, Elevation Burger introduced organic chicken at all 50 locations following extensive customer requests. But it took awhile for the chain to secure a 100 percent certified organic product that was also safe from an operational perspective.

The chain partnered with Alexandria, Virginiabased Cuisine Solutions, which pre-cooks the chicken via sous vide so Elevation Burger doesn’t have to deal with the food-safety concerns of raw chicken protein.

“When you add new products, whether organic or not, you’re adding complexity to operations,” Altizer says. “So it had to be the right product from a nutrition and operational flow standpoint.”

Like the industry’s move away from artificial ingredients, Altizer says, Elevation Burger’s organic chicken rollout was ultimately about offering customers more options.

“Offering healthy food that tastes great, or a better-tasting burger that’s better for you, that was in response to what guests want,” he says. “It’s less about driving industry reform, and more about providing options for people.”

Consumer Trends, Food Safety, Sustainability, Web Exclusives, Chipotle, Elevation Burger, Noodles & Co., Panera Bread, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell