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.


Two years ago, though, Noodles & Company made the decision to re-evaluate the entire menu to take its clean ingredients a step further, Douglas says. That decision led the company to remove all artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners from its sauces, condiments, soups, and dressings, as well as to introduce an artificial ingredient–free bread and antibiotic- and added-hormone–free bacon. Douglas says the company is looking into added-hormone–free cheese and naturally raised steak and hopes to roll out antibiotic-free chicken by Q4 of 2016.

All of these things are relevant to Noodles’ core demographic, Douglas says, which today includes “busy, career-minded Millennial parents with families.”

“Today more than ever, these guests are looking for transparency just as much as healthy options to nourish their bodies,” he says via email. “They want to know what they are serving their families and are looking for a restaurant that can provide the fresh, homemade-cooking experience for them, so they can spend that extra time nourishing their most cherished relationships: their family.”

The VIA Agency’s Leahy says the public conversation around food additives like antibiotics, GMOs, and chemicals has been so negative that many customers no longer see clean ingredients as a positive option; they see it as an expectation. She adds that the expectation for these foods grows even as experts and scientists assert that certain additives, like GMOs, aren’t actually bad for the body.

“Honestly, the fast-casual segment made this affordable, at least perception-wise,” she says. “Once upon a time organic and antibiotic-free were something for the wealthy. But then enter Chipotle and everyone can have a salad with free-range chicken and antibiotic-free meat and farm-fresh vegetables.”

Searching for better ingredients

But it’s not just fast casuals who have committed to cleaner menus. Large quick-service brands are also answering customers’ calls for cleaner ingredients and committing to gradual shifts in sourcing practices.

Papa John’s is one such brand. The company that has made the tagline “Better ingredients. Better pizza.” a household catchphrase is doubling down on the “better” claim, pulling out dozens of artificial flavors. The company boasts on its website that there are 65 “unwanted ingredients removed or not used” on its menu, versus 35 at Panera and 80 at Chipotle. Meanwhile, it lists 24 “unwanted ingredients currently used” at Papa John’s compared with 54 at Panera and nine at Chipotle, and 14 “unwanted ingredients publicly committed to removing by 2016,” versus 54 at Panera and zero at Chipotle.

Founder and CEO John Schnatter says the process of cleaning up the menu began in earnest in the ’90s, when the company—which already used fresh dough, vegetables, and sauces—worked with its meat suppliers to take out any additives. The commitment progressed over time, he says, but the formal attempt to go “clean label,” which has been spearheaded by the company’s senior vice president of research and development, quality assurance (QA), and supply chain, Sean Muldoon, came together between 2010 and 2013.

“We really weren’t that smart; we were just trying to walk the talk, do what we thought was right in our heart of hearts on putting our money where our mouth is on ‘Better ingredients. Better pizza,’” Schnatter says. “We had no idea the Millennials would dig what we were already doing. It was just sheer luck, because we were just being defensive. This wasn’t an offensive play. Sean and his team have gotten us in a position where, by the end of the year, we’ll be within one or two ingredients of Chipotle on the clean label.”

That commitment doesn’t come cheap. In announcing its clean menu initiative earlier this year, Papa John’s stated that it spends about $100 million a year on the efforts. Schnatter says that figure will be more like $110–$120 million this year, adding that the extra cost comes from sourcing higher-quality ingredients.

Muldoon says keeping R&D, QA, and supply chain all under his purview has helped Papa John’s maintain its high clean-label standards. He says the ingredient changes take anywhere from six months to two years to implement, adding that the company works closely with its small group of suppliers to develop reformulated recipes.

He points to the chain’s sauces as one of the hardest ingredients to get right. “We have a supplier that has a team of really talented food scientists who we collaborate with, and they’re in our offices and in our labs a lot,” he says. “In terms of process, there’s a ton of sampling various iterations of recipes. We’ve got to get those recipes right to where we think they do two things: One, they deliver on our gold-standard flavor needs, but two, [they deliver] on our clean label as we define clean label. And sometimes it’s a challenge to do both those things.”

While the company has not committed to antibiotic-free proteins or GMO-free ingredients, Muldoon says his team will be “very strategic” and “very intentional” if it moves in that direction. He adds that the company learns from its global practices when rolling changes out domestically; for example, much of its European business is already GMO-free because of the way the agriculture infrastructure is established there.

Yum! Brands concepts Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have also taken strides in cleaning up their menus. Both companies committed this year to removing artificial flavors and colors, while Taco Bell also pledged to take out high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and unsustainable palm oil.

Dominique Vitry, director of culinary innovation at Pizza Hut, says customers today are more interested in learning about the foods they consume and are demanding more transparency, which is part of the reason the company chose to pull out unnecessary additives. But she says Pizza Hut also used the opportunity to improve upon its recipes to ensure the quality wasn’t just on par with before, but was even better.

“People hear things like removal of flavors or ingredients, and they start to think, ‘Oh, what have you done? Have you taken flavor out?’ And that is absolutely not what we’ve done here,” she says. “We want to make sure we are the best and we are the most flavorful, and we’ve got to get it right every time.”

Taco Bell’s menu cleanup has been going on for about a decade, says Liz Matthews, the brand’s chief food innovation officer. The company first reduced its sodium content by 15 percent and then simplified its menu further by removing things such as MSG and butylated hydroxyanisole. The pledge this May to remove artificial flavors and other ingredients—a process that had been in the works for a year and should be complete by the beginning of 2016—touched about 95 percent of the Taco Bell menu.

Matthews says Taco Bell’s scale made the cleanup complex. The company has several food suppliers and worked with each one to reformulate recipes and test each iteration. But the fact that the brand had close relationships with each supply partner and was already familiar with those partners’ vendors, she adds, made the process run more smoothly.

“Knowing that immediately, off the bat, already puts you ahead of the game. Just as we build partnerships with our strategic partners, they’re building those partnerships with their strategic partners,” Matthews says. “When you get everybody into a room and say, ‘This is where we’re headed’—and we all know as an industry this is where we’re headed and this is where we need to go in terms of what the customers are saying—you’d be surprised when you make the conscious decision of where you’re going; you get a lot more cooperation versus just talking to one partner.”

Next up on Taco Bell’s list of ingredients to remove is preservatives, Matthews says, which will be a little trickier to take out than artificial flavors. But when you’re a business with 50 million customers a week and those customers are telling you they want a cleaner menu, Matthews says, then it’s worth the time, effort, and money.

“I think our role is to listen to the consumers,” she says. “If they’re telling us they want less in their food, then you know what? Less is more for us; let’s remove where we can.”

Consumer Trends, Food Safety, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Special Reports, Sustainability, Noodles & Co., Panera Bread, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell