“Clean up your fact” (Panera Bread)

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My only trip to Panera was four years ago. Think I may have had some kind of salad and pasta dish, but whatever it was, I was, according to the chain’s advertising, consuming “clean food.”

But this term is a marketing gimmick that carries no legal or culinary meaning. CEO Ron Shaich said that his company has completed “removal of all artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners and colors from artificial sources.”

But nothing about this means that the food is any healthier. Natural is not necessarily good and artificial is not synonymous with harmful. Still, the latest Panera commercial self-righteously asks, “When did mixing food with nonfood become acceptable?” But this isn’t what happens with artificial additives are used. Nor is very much food today genuinely natural. It has been cross-bred and refined by farmers and scientists for 10,000 years, giving Panera, Arby’s, and home chefs access to options that are more durable, tasty, and nutritious.

Panera’s fabricated definition of clean food is “Food as it should be, with no artificial flavors, preservatives, sweetening, or colors.” The commercial making this pronouncement features a syringe-like object being injected into a tomato, a deliberate misrepresentation of how additives are employed in food production. The actual process involves identifying and removing genes with desirable traits, then placing them in a petri dish where they are incorporated into a plant genome. It is not the dangerous experiment with your oatmeal and organs that Panera is insinuating.

Besides fallaciously appealing to nature, the company website also pays homage to antiquity:  “Chances are good that your grandparents or great-grandparents never talked about eating clean. Instead, they just did eat clean, because clean food—food that’s simple, natural, unprocessed, and whole—was, well, all food.”

In truth, very little if any of the food that was eaten in these gastrological glory days was natural or unprocessed. The food eaten then had been taken out of its natural state millenniums before and was continuing to be improved. And short of acquiring it from a garden or local farmer’s market, your grandparents’ food likely underwent some type of processing. Drying, cooling, freezing, boiling, salting, smoking, pickling, fermenting, Pasteurizing, canning, jellying, and sugaring are all means of unnatural food preservation or processing that have been around for centuries. As to the “whole food” claim, I’m not sure what Panera is talking about, and I doubt it does either.  

The company also plays on chemophobia. Here’s what executive John Taylor had to say: “If I go to my pantry to grab ingredients to make salad dressing, I don’t want to reach for potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.” And one of its commercials shows a laboratory where colorful liquids are added to test tubes, resulting in a strawberry – another deliberate misrepresentation of how preservatives, sweeteners, and colorings are added.

The preservatives inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, and are used to prevent oxidation.  They reduce the risk of foodborne infections, decrease microbial spoilage, and preserve a food’s freshness and nutritional value. That sodium nitrite and potassium hydrogen sulfite that are in your chili mac are there for a good reason.  

The whole spectacle leaves the normally mild-mannered Kevin Folta fuming. The University of Florida horticulturist considers the Panera campaign a character assassination of the farmers and agricultural scientists whose mission is to give the world a safe, reliable food supply.

“At a time when all of our affluent-world food is produced with tremendous care and regulation, and 21,000 people will die today from lack of nutrition, it is disgusting to see safe food demonized. Every calorie represents tremendous time, labor, fuel, water, fertilizer, and crop protection that is safe, affordable, and abundant.”

By highlighting its so-called “clean” food, Panera implies that other food is unclean, dirty, unhealthy, and inferior. But Folta writes that there is no inherent danger in artificial additives, and in fact, they are used precisely because they makes a food tastier, more nutritious, more aromatic, more colorful, and resistant to drought and pests. Also, Folta said the chemical makeup of an artificial additive and its natural counterpart can be the same: “Many additives are identical to natural flavor compounds, they are just produced in more efficient ways.” 

As to the horrors that Panera wishes to shield us from, Folta writes that, “Preservatives are trace compounds that retard spoilage, maintain product quality, and retain color and texture. They slow the degradation that begins immediately after fruits and vegetables are picked. Meats and dairy products begin a similar path and all become hosts to bacteria and fungi that participate in the breakdown process and may pose threats to human health. The addition of safe, reliable preservatives means food is of higher quality.”

The focus, then, should be on the right kind of food, not whether it contains artificial additives. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, is preferable to one favoring preservative-free pizza, French fries, and ice cream.

Panera will gladly serve their customers spinach that contains formaldehyde, an ingredient in embalming fluid. And this is perfectly fine. But it highlights something Panera would prefer you not know: That the same chemical can be used safely and efficiently in multiple products.

So when they warn about Azodicarbonamide in another chain’s food, they are engaged in fact-resistant fearmongering. They rely on the multisyllabic nature of the additive to instill worry even though the chemical is merely a dough conditioner that improves bread’s texture and elasticity. In short, it safely makes for a better loaf.  

Panera also gloats of not serving food without potassium sorbate, which it says, “can also be used in personal care products. Instead, we use clean ingredients like rosemary extract and cultured sugar to maintain freshness.”

Statements like this rely on most diners being unaware that potassium sorbate occurs naturally in edible plants. Moreover, it prevents the growth of microorganisms that can make the product go bad and cause the consumer to painfully regurgitate clean food.

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