What You Can Learn from Panera Bread's Menu Cleanup

food on table
Propylene glycol alginate, carboxymethyl cellulose, tertiary butylhydroquinone. Words from a sci-fi movie? Nope. They’re artificial ingredients and additives that can be found in restaurant food. But fear not — those mystery words are beginning to disappear in the food industry.

Panera Bread, the St. Louis–based bakery chain, recently announced that all its menu items are “100% Clean,” containing no artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, or colors from artificial sources.

To clean up the menu of a chain with more than 2,200 locations, the brand identified 96 artificial ingredients and additive classes on a “No No List.” A food policy team partnered with over 300 food vendors to review more than 450 ingredients, and reformulated 122 items in the supply chain. Nearly every recipe was affected. The cleanup started in 2014 and took two years to complete.

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“It’s a lot of work, but rosemary doesn’t necessarily cost more than titanium dioxide, or whatever it is,” said Ron Shaich, Panera founder, chairman, and CEO, in an interview with the Associated Press in 2015.

The results? Panera saw a 5.3-percent bump in quarterly sales after fully adopting the “100% Clean” menu. So being healthy is good for business, and it doesn’t necessarily need to cost you — or your customers — more. “Overall, menu prices haven’t gone up more than inflation,” Shaich said.

“Panera’s leadership shows that consumer health can be a priority in the corporate bottom line. If more brands followed Panera’s approach to transparency, informing consumers and developing institutional commitment, food would be healthier for all,” said Tom Neltner, chemical policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, in a press release.

Panera is the first of its kind to undergo such comprehensive menu improvements, but it’s confident that its actions will encourage competitors to do the same.

And while it may not be realistic for you to do a complete menu overhaul at your own restaurant, consider adapting your menu with cleaner ingredients over time with these tips:

Go local: Try switching to a local supplier for particular ingredients. Forging relationships with local farmers and suppliers is a great way to know exactly where your food comes from, and it benefits nearby vendors.

Get cleaner: Try using antibiotic-free and/or free-range meat and GMO-free items, and introducing local or organic offerings when possible.

Reduce unhealthful additives: Review your own recipes to see if there are easy switches you can do to make things healthier, like reducing sugar and sodium levels. If you use additives or preservatives, consider changing to healthier options, like fresh ingredients, that may not have as long of a shelf life.

Offer alternatives: You don’t need an entire menu that’s vegan or gluten free, but with an increasing number of people more cognizant of where their food comes from (and what it includes), it fares well for you to cater to food allergies and sensitivities. It doesn’t need to be complicated — offering almond milk as a dairy alternative for coffee, or adding gluten-free gnocchi to a pasta menu.

Be transparent: If you are making changes, take a page from Panera’s book and let customers know. Label more healthful menu choices, like lighter options, gluten-free fare, or vegetarian dishes.

Spread the word: People love knowing where their food comes from. Try listing local vendors on the menu or on a board in plain sight.

Clean food is here to stay, and you stand to benefit from cleaning up your menu.

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