Why Panera’s decision to ditch food additives actually misses the point

The company is dumping artificial additives from its food -- but that's not necesssarily going to make us healthier

Topics: panera, Fast food, food additives, Chemicals, ,

Why Panera's decision to ditch food additives actually misses the point

Panera announced last week that it’s cleaning up its food, pledging to rid its cafe and bakery products of all artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives by 2016. In so doing, it appears to be one-upping Subway, which made waves when it announced earlier this year that it’s removing azodicarbonamide (forever immortalized as the “yoga-mat chemical”) from its own bread; and chains like Chipotle and Starbucks, which have previously expressed their commitment to reducing additives.

Among the additives being ditched by Panera, as USA Today first reported, is a long list of chemicals found in popular food items:

• Deli smoked turkey: potassium lactate, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite and sodium diacetate.

• Horseradish: calcium disodium EDTA.

• Citrus Pepper Chicken: maltodextrin, potassium lactate.

• Cilantro Jalapeño Hummus: ascorbic acid and tocopherol, tara gum, carrageenan, potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.

• Summer corn chowder: tapioca Dextrin, modified corn starch, autolyzed yeast extract, maltodextrin, coconut oil derived from triglycerides, artificial flavors.

• Roast beef: caramel color.

As reported, it definitely looks like a lot of things we don’t want in our food. Sodium nitrite, for example: The Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that this chemical, commonly found in red-meat products, is one to avoid, because of its link to the formation of certain cancers. Caramel coloring, too, is an additive that CSPI advises consumers to stay away from, and one that Panera says it has already eliminated.



The rest of the additives, though? CSPI urges caution with some (sodium benzoatecarrageenan if you’re an infant); but most, it finds, “appear to be safe.” Sure, that’s not the same as saying “this should definitely be in your food,” particularly when there’s no clear nutritive benefit. And there are serious reasons to be concerned about the efficacy of the FDA’s regulation of food additives. But as a general rule, when a watchdog group grounded in science-based advocacy gives something the OK, there’s probably no need to lose sleep over it. Especially when you consider the other additives that went unmentioned in Panera’s announcement: sugar and salt, for example, which continue to be found in Panera’s offerings in abundance, and which arguably have a much greater overall effect on public health through their well-documented contributions to things like obesity and heart disease.

Put another way: You can take out all chemicals from a baked good, said John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State, but what you’re left with is “still cake.”

That simple truth is an important one, because the announcement that a fast food company is making its food more “natural” can come troublingly close to suggesting that it’s made its food more healthful. It’s hard to compare the obvious harm caused by an overabundance of sugar, for example, with the harm posed by potassium lactate — another one of the artificial additives of which Panera is purging from its products — which isn’t found in CSPI’s sizable database. According to Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the organization, it’s not just viewed as safe — and it might even be beneficial. The additive, Lefferts explained, can inhibit disease-causing bacteria like listeria; potassium, moreover, is an “essential mineral that can help counteract sodium’s ability to raise blood pressure.”

Representatives from Panera were unavailable to comment on the decision, but a spokesperson directed Salon to the company’s  “Comprehensive Food Policy,” which is couched in a “commitment to clean ingredients, transparency, and a positive impact (on the food system) rooted in craft.” The commitment is impressive, covering a lot of things that the rest of the fast food industry would do well to imitate, and that conscientious consumers should demand: Panera’s already eliminated trans fats (“with one exception”), worked to source fresh produce and antibiotic-free meat, and claims to be paying attention to everything from sustainable fishing to responsibly sourced palm oil.

The additive purge is a striking case of the company responding to consumer demands, as was Subway’s quick response to its bread scandal — but consumers, Coupland suggests, might want to rethink what they’re demanding.

Azodicarbonamide, as he acknowledged on his blog, does pose at least some potential health risks. It was probably a good idea for Subway to get rid of it, he told Salon. Even still, “by the time it got labeled as a yoga mat chemical, nobody was interested in what it did anymore.” The hype, in other words, appeared to be mostly grounded in a fear of science. By lumping together all chemicals under one category — “bad” — Panera skips over that nuance.

“Just because it has a scary name, just because it’s unnatural, isn’t the right prism for looking at this,” Coupland argues. “It makes people feel better, but I think you need to have some sort of scientific judgment for whether it’s doing something good for us or not.”

The removal of most, or even all, artificial additives from food, and the move away from the industrialization of the food system that such a move symbolizes, is by no means a bad thing, especially when there’s still a lot we don’t know about the safety of many additives. But it might be overstating it to think of Panera’s big announcement as “radical” change, in terms of the impact it will have. “Panera’s intention to eliminate artificial food additives is a good step in the right direction,” Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI, added in a statement to Salon. He was careful to point out, however, that the new policy doesn’t yet apply to beverages, which will continue to contain questionable ingredients like dyes and sweeteners.

“More broadly, though, the company has made an enormous effort to make mostly changes that are totally cosmetic … without any substantive benefit to consumers,” Jacobson said. “If Panera really wanted to promote its customers’ health, it would cut the salt, sugar and saturated fat — huge amounts of which are present in some of its products — as well as offer more whole grain products, fruits, and veggies.”

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...