Eighty-three percent of the population in the United States visits fast food joints and over sixty-eight percent visits casual dining restaurants at least once a week. (1)
People’s schedules are so busy that for many, the ease and expediency of stopping for a quick bite is too good to resist.
So it’s encouraging when a big cafe and bakery chain decides to improve the quality of its ingredients purely for health reasons.
Panera Bread (also known as Saint Louis Bread Company and Paradise Bakery & Cafe) serves almost two thousand locations throughout the U.S. and in Ontario, Canada. Last year, its CEO Ron Shaich announced that it was doing an overhaul to eliminate artificial and questionable chemicals from all of its products, with a special eye on its kids’ meals:
“Frankly, the typical restaurant-industry kids [sic] meal doesn’t serve our kids well. We shouldn’t be marketing to kids. Toys and games distract from honest food choices. They come with poor options like fries and sugary beverages. This is not food as it should be. The meals we serve our children should be good food.” (2)
When marketing to children—a remarkably clever and effective strategy—the focus has been on the stuff you get: toys, movie merchandise, and contests. Bright, loud, and repetitive advertisements compel children to pester their parents to visit a particular place—most often a fast-food chain. Several fast food companies pledged some years ago to curtail this type of advertising in favor of marketing that showcases the food instead. A 2013 study found that those “quick service restaurants” did not live up to that promise. (3)
Panera has deviated from that group.
The children’s menu is missing soda and French fries. There are several sandwiches, soups, salads, and the standards mac&cheese and buttered noodles. Sides include apples and organic yogurt. Its pledge:
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“A Kids’ Meal Should Be:
- Clean – no artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners or colors from artificial sources.
- Full of delicious options – let them make their own choices from a menu full of tasty, wholesome options.
- Worthy of trust – no gimmicks. No distractions. No cartoon characters, crazy colors, toys, or toy-shaped food.
- Nutritiously paired – growing bodies need a meal complete with nutritious sides. Not fries, no onion rings. Options like organic yogurt, sprouted grain rolls or apples.
- Drink optional – kids meals shouldn’t encourage kids to drink a sugary beverage. Ours never have, never will. Water first, or you can add on organic milk or 100% juice.” (4)
Panera has compiled a “No-No List” of forty-five chemicals (some of them seriously toxic) it will stop using by the end of 2016 and others it has never used in the food it serves. To see the full list, click here.
These are all commonly found not only in fast- and casual food but in any processed food you can buy off a shelf. The No-Nos include artificial colors and flavors, alum, propylene glycol, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, L-cysteine, caramel color, and maltodextrin.
This is great news for anyone who eats Panera’s food—not just kids.
If Chipotle’s experience is any indication, Panera can expect to profit from this bold move. Chipotle is the largest Mexican-style casual food restaurant in the U.S. A few years ago, it announced that it was going GMO-free (Genetically-Modified Organisms). The day following the announcement, its stock went up significantly and six months later was at forty-one cents a share higher than projected.
It’s not that people don’t want to eat better, it’s that their lifestyles make it difficult to always make healthful meals at home.
Fresh, nutritious slow food made with love at home is always better than eating out in every way except convenience. It’s comforting to know that some restaurants are taking the lead in ensuring that the food they provide their customers is not a horrendous second best.