Ron Shaich — founder, chairman and CEO of Panera — says one of the core commitments of his company is to "actually be part of fixing a broken food system in this country." Over the years Panera has taken many steps to do that like adding calorie counts to menus, no longer serving chicken raised with antibiotics, changing its kids' meals, and announcing a 150-item "No No List" that the company promised would be tackled by the end of 2016.
Panera says it has successfully met that goal, according to Food Business News. The 150 ingredients included artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors, and they're gone from all of Panera's foods. To accomplish this, the company had to reformulate 122 ingredients and change most of its recipes. The end result is that Panera's menu is now "clean."
What does clean food mean?
There's no official definition of clean food or clean eating. It's a term that has become associated with eating naturally, which can mean different things to different people.
Food blogger Kimi Harris points out that the definition of clean eating changes depending on the diet you're trying to follow. Vegans would say that clean eating doesn't include meat, while weight trainers would say it must include lean protein. The one thing that most people agree on, Harris says, is that "food should be as close to its natural state as possible, free of preservatives, chemicals, pesticides or dyes."
Fitness Magazine says "clean eating is about eating whole foods, or 'real' foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible."
Meanwhile, Panera defines clean food as food that has "no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and no colors from artificial sources." (The company applies that definition to its U.S. food menu, as well as Panera at Home grocery products.)
Some proponents of clean eating may not consider Panera's food 100 percent clean because some of it is highly processed. White flour and sugar are both free from any ingredients on the "No No List," but they are still highly processed. Others may have a problem with the fact that Panera uses some GMO ingredients or ingredients that may have been grown using pesticides.
Does clean food necessarily mean healthy food?
The removal of all artificial preservatives, sweeteners colors and flavors from Panera's restaurant and grocery store foods is commendable. The menu items that no longer have these ingredients are certainly the better for it. But, does that mean that all of Panera's foods are now good for you?
Like the definition of clean food, it's debatable. Take a look at the screenshot above of Panera's New England Clam Chowder. The bowl contains about half of the recommended daily value of sodium (2400 mg). At 24 grams, it is over the recommended daily value of saturated fat (20 grams). So while the soup is devoid of all the "No No List" ingredients, its high levels of sodium and fat don't make it a particularly healthy choice — unless you're counterbalancing it with low sodium and low fat foods the rest of the day.
Information on saturated fat and other nutrition information for Panera's foods can be found on the Panera Bread Nutrition Information table. Fortunately, Panera is very transparent with its nutrition information and the restaurant does offer choices that would be better nutritionally than this chowder.
The takeaway here is that Panera's new "clean" claim isn't license to eat anything and everything you want on its menu. Understanding what is and isn't in the menu items is important in order to make truly informed choices if you chose to eat at Panera. With the removal of artificial preservatives, sweeteners colors and flavors, there are now more good choices at Panera, and using the information the restaurant provides can help you determine what they are.