Panera announced today that it is now offering “clean bacon,” which it defines as free of artificial additives and raised from pigs without antibiotics or gestation crates.
The move by the St. Louis-based fast casual chain is part of the company’s broader initiative to strike ingredients from its food that are on its “no no list” of artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and colors.
Panera (PNRA) worked on its bacon—what it says was one of the most challenging items to clean up—for about a year, and claims that it is the first national restaurant company to undertake such an endeavor. All of the meat it now serves are “clean,” and bakery items are the only category it has left to tackle.
Before we dive in to whether “clean bacon” is an oxymoron, here’s what it means in practice: Sodium phosphate, sodium nitrite, and sodium erythorbate—ingredients used in curing and preserving were all removed. The company switched to celery powder as a curing agent and doesn’t need the additional preserving element because of the fast turnover. (Last year Panera’s restaurants served 2 million pounds, or 115 million slices, of bacon on its sandwiches and salads.)
The ingredient list is now just pork, water, sea salt, sugar, celery powder, and thyme extract. Panera head chef Dan Kish says that fresh thyme resulted in a woody taste, which is why the company is using extract.
Panera’s move is both laudable and practical— the company’s efforts reflect a broader shift in the food industry as consumers increasingly reject ingredients that they don’t understand.
But bacon is still bacon, and there’s a risk that labeling something as “clean” allows consumers to conflate it with nutritious. “Clean,” after all, has no standard definition and labeling something as such can give us license to eat in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. As I wrote earlier this year in a piece called “This is the Biggest Mistake You’re Making with ‘Clean’ Eating“:
It comes down to psychology. Consumers think about food in two categories—good or bad, says Pierre Chandon, who is director of the Sorbonne INSEAD Behavioral Lab. “As a result, if you claim to be good on just one dimension—low fat, gluten-free—people categorize you as good overall and that you have all the properties of good food,” he says.
Thanks to its “no no list” Panera is more transparent than most companies in defining what “clean” means, and Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy, says that the company is not trying to imply bacon is healthy with the label. “On the nutrition side of things, our position has been and will continue to be that there’s a place for everyday foods,” she says, “but also a place in everyone’s life for a little bit of indulgence.”
So if you’re going to indulge, there’s no downside in picking something “clean.” But don’t let “clean” trick you into over-indulging.