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Panera to eliminate 150 ingredients: Better food or better PR?

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(Read caption) In this March 2010 file photo, a worker passes an order to a customer at a Panera Bread store in Brookline, Mass.

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Fans of ethoxyquin, tertiary butylhydroquinone, and potassium benzoate take note: this year will likely be the last in which you can find your favorite preservatives in foods served at Panera.  

The popular fast-casual chain announced Tuesday that it is working to eliminate a long list of additives from its menu by 2016.

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Among the 150 additives, artificial colors and flavors on its "No-No list" are common additives like high fructose corn syrup and artificial trans fats, chemical compounds like titanium dioxide, artificial colors and flavors, and some ingredients largely considered innocuous like caffeine and vanillin, the major chemical component in vanilla.

"We are not scientists," said Panera founder and CEO Ron Shaich. "We are people who know and love food, and who believe that the journey to better food starts with simpler ingredients."

The move follows similar decisions by other food companies such as Dunkin' Donuts, which has dropped titanium dioxide from its powdered donuts, and Kraft which announced it is removing artificial colors and preservatives from its mac and cheese.

Consumer advocates have long pressured food companies to eliminate chemical additives in food, and many food companies seem to be getting the message. But some experts are questioning whether the eliminated ingredients are really all that bad, and whether the shift away from additives is a sincere effort to promote wellness, or a PR move designed to appease customers. 

"Are we really getting that much better food as a result of this kind of high-publicity action?" asks John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State. "I completely respect the idea that Panera has to make a branding decision about what consumers will accept," he said in a phone interview, adding that the move is driven more by "the brand people rather than nutritionists and food scientists."

All food – indeed all physical matter – consists of chemicals. Even the man-made chemicals in Panera's menu are "there for a purpose," says Coupland, who adds that the restaurant's ingredients "wouldn't impact my eating decisions."

"They're not adding this stuff for fun," he says.

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In other words, eliminating certain additives has a cost. Among the 150 ingredients Panera plans to eliminate is propionates, a class of anti-molding agents that slow the growth of mold on bread.

"There's no evidence at all that it is even slightly dangerous," Dr. Coupland says. "It could lead to more waste ... It is seen as scary so it ends up being kicked out."

"The pity is it becomes a guess at what consumers might think about it rather than a serious consideration of [health and logistics]," he says.

Karthik Aghoram, an associate professor of biological sciences at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., offers a harsher assessment.

"Companies are pandering to a misinformed public," he said in an email. "Just because something is created in a lab does not make it more toxic than something that is natural. TBHQ and azodicarbonamide, the infamous yoga mat chemical that was removed from Subway bread, are less toxic than caffeine. If we wanted to really go the "can't pronounce it, don't use it" logic, let's drink to this: the real chemical name for caffeine, our beloved morning drug of choice? It is 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione.”  

But others in the industry, including nutritionist and health food advocate Marion Nestle, have applauded Panera's move.

"Panera is setting a high bar," Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told USA Today. "These are all ingredients used in highly processed foods to make them look, taste, and hold together better — for the most part, cosmetics."