A little over two-and-a-half years ago, Panera Bread made a promise to diners. The restaurant chain said that by the end of 2016, it would commit to only using “clean” ingredients.
Today, Panera (PNRA) CEO Ron Shaich is confirming that they made good on that vow—the U.S. food menu is 100% clean.
“We can now turn to the world and say we have a comprehensive policy that ensures them they will get a menu free of artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, sweeteners and colors from artificial sources,” Shaich told Fortune in an interview. “The fact that they have the ability to know that without a food scientist or having to bring a dictionary or hit Google to know what’s in the food they eat—it’s amazing.”
What does “clean” mean to Panera? The chain worked with health experts to compile a list of ingredients and additives that it wanted to remove from the food found on the company’s menu. That list of 96 ingredients—including aspartame, high fructose corn syrup and saccharin—was officially unveiled back in 2015. The chain was the first U.S. national restaurant company to publicly share a list of ingredients it would no longer be using.
“We as a society increasingly have woken up and realized this isn’t good for us,” says Shaich, when referencing the additives and artificial preservatives that have become a mainstay in U.S. food production in the past half century. “So why do we want it in our food?”
Panera says the project took some heavy lifting. The chain reviewed more than 450 ingredients and ultimately reformulated 122, which resulted in some changes to the recipes at the company’s bakery cafes. It had to partner with more than 300 food vendors to make those “clean” menu changes, a process that Panera director of wellness Sara Burnett said took a lot of time but was made easier by the fact Panera often worked with existing vendors to make the switch.
“A guest can feel confident—whether ordering a blueberry muffin or a salad—that all items meet the standard,” Burnett said.
Panera has offered the public some incremental updates about the progress it has made to clean up the menu. Last year, the chain offered separate updates to share that the company’s soups, retail food items, and kids’ meals were all “clean.” Other chains have also been on this reformulation journey—companies like McDonald’s (MCD) and Subway have also made similar announcements—though Panera’s reformulations have been far more comprehensive.
There’s a competitive advantage that explains why restaurants chains and Big Food manufacturers are changing how they make their food. There is a consumer-driven shift toward fresher, cleaner foods—and Shaich, like many others in the industry, say he thinks this change isn’t a fad. He and Burnett also have a personal stake in wanting food at Panera to be healthier, as both have children that regularly eat at the company’s cafes. “My 13-year-old daughter eats at Panera,” Shaich says. “Why not give her simpler, easier, cleaner food?”
Of course, there’s still more work to do. There’s been recent attention focusing on the sugar industry—and new dietary guidelines that are encouraging Americans to consume less of it. That trend is challenging the food industry to think about how much sugar is in their food. It is a topic that Panera Bread hasn’t publicly addressed just yet.
Along those lines, Panera still stocks PepsiCo (PEP) soda products. While selling those goods is important for menu diversification, it runs a bit contrary to the idea of a clean food menu that’s aiming to remove artificial flavors and sweeteners. To their credit, PepsiCo and Coca Cola (KO)—and both have made promises to make their portfolio healthier by aiming to sell more beverages with fewer calories.