Panera Bread just took a big step toward reaching its goal to cut all artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colours, and flavours from the menu by the end of 2016.
The bakery-cafe chain announced today that its soup menu is now “clean,” free of ingredients on the
“No No List” that the chain is banning from the menu. For example, the popular Broccoli Cheddar Soup has cut additives like hydrolyzed soy and corn protein and sodium phosphate — ingredients common in soups from companies including Campbell’s and Progresso.
The change required revamping recipes to cut FDA-approved preservatives — many with long, complicated names — to create soups with much shorter ingredient lists.
“Is there anything in there that may be completely safe to eat and ok to use by the FDA standpoint, but would it be in my home pantry?” Panera Head Chef Dan Kish told Business Insider on his thought process as he rewrote recipes. “I don’t keep a little container of sodium phosphate lying around in my kitchen, because I don’t need to preserve food in that way.”
In other words, the items being removed aren’t necessarily bad for you — they just weren’t needed. And, as pushback against any non-natural ingredients has exploded in the last few years, it’s clear that customers want “cleaner” menus, whether or not additives have been proven to have negative health effects.
Soup companies like Campbell’s and Progresso need to create soups that have a long shelf life. However, as Panera serves a lot of soup in a short amount of time (the company estimates it sells 200 million servings of soup a year), there is less of a need for preservatives. So, cutting additives from the menu will, ideally, only help Panera’s brand.
“As people’s perception of what good food is evolves over time — I’ll hitch my wagon to clean,” says Kish. “It’s hard to argue with simple ingredients that I have in my own home pantry, instead of things that I can’t pronounce or don’t understand.”
The most difficult part of the soup makeover for Kish was recreating the same taste without common soup ingredients — no better, no worse.
The goal was to make the new soups taste exactly the same as the older versions, despite cutting ingredients such as carrageenan, a seaweed-based product which can be used for stabilisation, or sodium phosphate, which helps soups’ texture. It was a challenge that took more than 60 revisions of the Broccoli Cheddar soup recipe before reaching an end result that Kish was happy with.
“If you came in last week, and you came in this week, you shouldn’t notice the difference,” says Kish.
Despite the hopefully identical taste, Panera is publicizing the change. The company is releasing a 60-second trailer for the soup remake. Customers are encouraged to add their own reviews of the soup to the trailer via social media, using the hashtag #soupreview.
So far, waging a very public and transparent battle to cut additives from the menu has, at the very least, been a PR success for Panera.
“The Food As It Should Be campaign combined with our No No List announcement in May, plus an extensive outreach effort to key influences has created tremendously positive social media buzz and earned media coverage,” Panera’s president, Drew Madsen, said in an earnings call in October. “Panera has clearly become a reference brand for clean food in our industry.”
With Chipotle’s recent slump, it could be Panera’s time to shine when to comes to showcasing fresh, healthy ingredients — as well as a special attention to food safety, with the company’s first Responsibility Report published in late December. Whether or not Panera’s soups were ever truly dirty, a clean menu has the potential to pay off for Panera in 2016.
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