Panera Bread says it will become the first national restaurant chain to label added sugar and calorie information for every beverage it serves, a move meant to give customers more information about the drinks they consume. And the bakery-cafe’s founder and CEO Ron Shaich is calling on his rivals to do the same.
Starting April 5, Panera (PNRA) will begin posting nutritional information about added sugars and calories for all the self-serve beverages it sells at the chain’s roughly 2,000 locations. The chain is also debuting a new line of 100% “clean” beverages that feature flavors like green tea, agave lemonade and plum ginger hibiscus tea and include no artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
In an ad that will be published on Friday in The Washington Post, Shaich is also calling on Panera’s rivals to do the same. “We challenge the beverage and restaurant industries to join us in this effort,” the ad said. “Whether you choose soda or lemonade, you deserve to know what’s in your cup and how it affects your health.”
“We feel a responsibility and desire to offer real options and real transparency,” Shaich told Fortune in an interview ahead of the announcement. Panera’s decision to add information about added sugar and calorie information is notable because while the Food and Drug Administration is requiring packaged food and beverage makers to add new information about added sugar to nutrition fact panels, restaurants aren’t yet required to do so.
Panera has been especially vocal about the chain’s efforts to reformulate its menu and also be transparent about that process. In 2010, for example, it became the first national restaurant chain to display calorie information on menu boards. In more recent years, Panera’s menu has been reformulated to remove aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, saccharin and dozens of other ingredients as it aims to use only “clean” ingredients. The company confirmed early this year that it had completed that process.
There’s a bit of one-upmanship going on across the industry as restaurant chains and Big Food manufacturers race to remake their menus and portfolios to be seen as healthy at a time when consumers say they want to eat better and fresher foods and drinks. Just this week alone, McDonald’s (MCD) said by next year it will start serving fresh rather than frozen beef in its Quarter Pounder burgers while Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) has said it has completely removed all preservatives from the company’s menu.
While Panera has long been on the healthy food kick, the company’s relationship with soda makers PepsiCo (PEP) and Dr Pepper Snapple (DPS) has always seemed at odds with the “clean” message. A classic Dr Pepper, for example, has 75 grams of sugar for a 20-ounce serving, far above the federal government’s daily recommendation of 50 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet. Some outside experts have linked soda consumption to the increase of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S.
The new beverages Panera has developed range from zero grams of added sugar to around 35 for a similar-sized serving. “We know consumers are drinking more water and more low-calorie beverages,” says Panera director of wellness Sara Burnett. “They are paying attention to added sugar. But we also know that water sometimes is boring and they are looking for something that’s craveable to drink. And so this is our answer to that.”
Panera hopes consumers will ultimately opt for beverages with less sugar when they see how much is added to mainstream full-calorie sodas. “We aren’t the food police and telling them what to drink, but we are giving them real options,” said Burnett.
To their credit, soda makers are also remaking their portfolio. PepsiCo has sought to sell more lower-calorie and functional beverages with new launches like the Stubborn craft soda line, water bottle brand LIFEWTR, and the recently acquired sparkling probiotic drink maker KeVita. Dr Pepper last year bought Bai Brands to also get in on the action. They are tilting toward healthier fare at a time when consumers are drinking more bottled water, flavored waters, and teas and less full-calorie and diet sodas. Part of that shift is because consumers have becoming increasingly concerned about sugar, including artificial sweeteners.
Panera will continue selling PepsiCo and Dr Pepper products, though Shaich says Panera’s new beverages are on trend with what consumers want today. “I’ve yet to meet a customer that has said to me, ‘Give me food with more preservatives and artificial colors in them. I want my beverages to have more soda.’ Nobody ever said that,” said Shaich.