Special Report | November 2015 | By Sam Oches

Cleaning Up

Brands turn their attention to “clean” ingredients as consumer demand for better quality, health ramps up.
QSR brands roll out new healthy menu items like nutritious salads.
This year, Panera introduced its No-No List of more than 80 ingredients that have been removed from the menu or are in the process of being taken out. panera bread

It’s a rite of passage: In August, well before the actual fall season begins, limited-service brands—especially those among the coffee, doughnut, and bakery-café categories—trip over each other to be the first to market with all fashions of fall-themed goods, from apple-pie this to caramel that and everything Pumpkin Spice in between.

For two of the biggest Pumpkin Spice purveyors, though, the late-summer unleashing of the sacred flavor this year was different—something was missing. Panera Bread and Starbucks, each known for their seasonal pumpkin spice lattes (among other fall goodies), did the unthinkable: They changed their recipes. Starbucks removed an artificial caramel color while adding real pumpkin, and Panera, which already included real pumpkin in its pumpkin spice lattes, removed mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate from its recipe.

Neither move, however, came as much of a surprise. In the limited-service restaurant world, the pressure is on to get the junk—that is, many of the artificial additives and ingredients that have become a regular part of the supply chain in the decades-long attempt to make food more efficient—out of the food and beverages. Several brands are heeding customers’ calls for healthier, simpler—some say “cleaner”—ingredients, especially as consumer media decries pink slime and “yoga mat chemicals” found in major chains’ foods.

“Sometimes simpler is better,” says Dan Kish, Panera’s senior vice president of food. “I’m a chef, not a scientist, so I think great ingredients treated simply with care make great food.”

A more culinary approach

Kish has been with Panera for a decade, and, as a classically trained chef with no previous experience in the multiunit restaurant world, has helped lead an ongoing dialogue about what goes into Panera’s menu and what comes out.

For a while, Kish says, the dialogue revolved around a “pinpointed approach” where the company singled out certain ingredients and worked to slash them from the food. That strategy kept the fast casual at the top of the game when it came to clean ingredients: It was the first major limited-service chain to switch to antibiotic-free proteins, which it did, starting with chicken, in 2004; it was among the first to remove artificial trans fats; and it started sourcing grass-fed beef last year.

In the last few years, though, Panera has opted to broaden that approach and formalize its commitment to premium ingredients. That’s included the creation of its No-No List of ingredients it keeps out of the menu and a commitment to remove all artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives by the end of 2016, a process that is already at least 85 percent complete. The No-No List, which Panera makes available for customers online and in stores, included (as of September 9) at least 80 ingredients that are either not in the menu today or are in the process of being removed. The list features commonly known ingredients like lard and aspartame, as well as lesser-known (and harder to pronounce) ingredients such as tertiary butylhydroquinone and glycerol ester of wood rosin.

“What would the things be in the pantry that I would have, that I would want to cook with, that I would be proud to serve my family?” Kish says of the ingredients Panera aims to keep on the menu. “Because if I wouldn’t serve it to my family, why would I serve it to our guests?”

The formal process of re-evaluating ingredients (Panera has 415 of them) began internally a few years ago in the Panera test kitchens. Kish says it

started with asking the right questions about the food and putting guardrails around what company leaders wanted the menu to look like. At first the team tackled what Kish calls the “gotchas”—those menu items that might seem healthier to customers but in fact contained less-than-healthy ingredients.

From there, he says, it was a matter of second-guessing the ingredients Panera used for its wide-ranging menu, even including its signature items. “It wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘Alright, what would a natural substitute be so we could call it clean or compliant?’” he says. “For me, this was much less about compliancy and much more about quality. What we had here was an opportunity to restart some of our legacy products and say, as we clean them up, how can we have more of a culinary approach and less of a scientific approach to making them great?”

Sara Burnett is the senior quality assurance manager at Panera. She says the food system is so complex that Panera had to get back to basics in figuring out what belonged on the menu, and that included asking three core questions of every ingredient: First, what is its source? Second, how is it processed? And finally, is it really necessary in the finished product? “If there was a question mark or a vague answer or something we didn’t feel comfortable with in terms of source, processing, or necessity, we said that probably belongs on our No-No List,” she says.

Asking those questions required several conversations with suppliers, Burnett says. She uses Panera’s Greek dressing as an example of how the process worked in removing ingredients that had been included on the No-No List: First, the team walked through the suppliers’ ingredient declarations to understand everything that went into the dressing, including “sub-ingredients” she says might not have been listed on the declaration. Often this required suppliers going back to their own vendors to learn more about those sub-ingredients. The Panera team then told the suppliers which ingredients they wanted removed and how they wanted the product reformulated.

“Sometimes it’s really easy and you just can take things out; sometimes you just take one out and insert one; sometimes you take out one and you have to put three back in,” she says. “It’s very different for each product.” The whole process, from initiating the dialogue to rolling the reformulated product out nationwide—which includes test markets in between—takes about a year, she adds.

Kish says Panera’s suppliers admirably stepped up to the challenge of cleaning up their own products, adding that the dialogue among all parties was beneficial for everyone in understanding what exactly was in the food. That understanding, he says, will help as national brands like Panera work to make clean, healthy food available and affordable to the masses.

“When everyone eats better, we’re a much stronger society than where we are today. This will play out over decades, not days or weeks,” he says. “I look forward to the day when we stop calling things ‘clean’ and we just call it ‘food’ again.”

A healthy expectation

The national push among limited-service restaurants to clean up their menus is a great way for brands to earn credit for doing the right thing in the health department. But it’s also a response to sweeping consumer trends.

According to information from market research firm The Hartman Group, customers are increasingly interested in clean labels. The firm’s research shows that when they’re shopping for food and beverages, 65 percent of customers are looking for food and beverages with ingredients they recognize (versus 60 percent who did so in 2010). Meanwhile, 60 percent of customers are looking for food and beverages with the shortest list of ingredients, compared with 50 percent who did so five years ago.

Melissa Abbott, a vice president with The Hartman Group, attributes much of the rising interest in clean-label eating to social media. While customers have long been interested in healthier eating, she says, social media has heightened awareness of what is in food and how it affects the body.

“Consumers who had to proactively go and seek that information out before, now they’re just sitting there on their tablet [or] on their smartphone and they’re learning about these things,” Abbott says. “Their expectation now is that ‘healthy’ is all-encompassing, and increasingly so.”

Abbott says all of the healthy eating trends over the years—low-carb, low-fat, low-calorie, gluten-free, and so on—have all played into a larger movement that encompasses everything from sustainability and sourcing practices to humane treatment of animals and the absence of harmful ingredients. What consumers ultimately are looking for, she says, are brands that care about the quality of their food. That means that some brands looking to clean up their ingredient lists simply for the marketing win will fall flat with their customer base.

“To just kind of jump on the bandwagon, to the consumer, lacks integrity,” Abbott says. “But if you have a foodservice operator who is already kind of speaking to that and showcasing that mentality and already playing in that space, the consumer expects it. And that is where they’re going to be willing to pay a little bit more.”

That’s especially true of Millennial consumers, says Leeann Leahy, CEO of The VIA Agency, a marketing firm responsible for Perdue Farms’ recent campaign promoting its “No Antibiotics Ever” chicken. She says Millennials are demanding ethical business practices from the companies they commit their dollars to, and with food businesses, that includes menu transparency and a detailed heritage of where the ingredients are coming from.

“They demand an understanding and transparency around what the values of that organization are, what the purpose of that brand is, and if it’s an ethically driven company,” Leahy says. “Whether they’re buying socks or food or booze, they’re looking at those things across every category.”

Nourishing the body

There isn’t complete agreement, however, on what constitutes a more ethically minded menu. Limited-service brands have committed to removing everything from artificial flavors to added antibiotics and hormones to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in an effort to clean up their menus.

McDonald’s made the big decision this year to source only chicken raised without antibiotics, a move that other limited-service brands, including Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s, have likewise committed to. And Chipotle, which announced its initiative to remove GMOs from the menu in 2014, earlier this year confirmed that it had successfully gone GMO-free (excluding several beverages).

According to a Zagat report released in September on fast-casual consumer preferences, 19 percent of respondents said it was very important to them that fast casuals offer GMO-free food, while 35 percent said it was somewhat important. Meanwhile, 14 percent of customers said organic foods were very important, while 45 percent reported that organic foods were at least somewhat important. For comparison, only 5 percent of customers said gluten free was very important, and only 14 percent said it was somewhat important.

Noodles & Company, the Denver-based fast casual, has focused on a number of clean menu initiatives since it was founded 20 years ago. Glenn Douglas, vice president of supply chain, says that has long included naturally raised pork, organic tofu, and 14 types of freshly sourced vegetables.


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