Panera (PNRA) has cooked up a plan to rid its menu of of all artificial food additives by 2016.
The chain's announcement comes amid growing concern about impact of artificial food coloring and additives, with the Food and Drug Administration studying the impact of food coloring on children and Americans are now eating five times the amount of food dyes they did half a century ago.
As the casual-dining sector competes for middle-class wallets, other chains have already taken steps to appeal to families and diners concerned about ingredient safety. Chipotle (CMGI), for instance, recently started labeling genetically modified organisms and says it's "striving to eliminate GMOs from our supply chain."
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"Panera is on a mission to help fix a broken food system," said Panera chief concept officer Scott Davis in a statement.
The chain's menu will eliminate artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives by the end of 2016, the company added.
The decision was more of an internal one, rather than prompted by a request from consumers, Kate Antonacci, director of societal impact initiatives at Panera Bread, wrote in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "We believe that removing artificial ingredients is where the world is headed and, frankly, we've always believed that simpler is better," she wrote.
That means that Panera's roast beef will lose its caramel color additive, while its deli smoked turkey will shed ingredients including potassium lactate and sodium phosphate, USA Today notes.
Some food safety watchdogs, such as the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, claim that the rise in Americans' consumption of food dyes is tied to behavioral problems in children.
A study published earlier this year in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that one cup of General Mills' Trix cereal contained 36.4 milligrams of three food dyes: Yellow 6, Blue 1 and Red 40. That alone is far beyond Americans' daily consumption of food dyes in 1950, when it stood at only 12 milligrams.
Still, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest was skeptical of the changes. "The company appears to have made an enormous effort to make many small changes that are totally cosmetic and without any substantive benefit to consumers whatsoever," wrote executive director Michael Jacobson in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "If Panera really wanted to promote its customers' health (and not just grab a headline) it would cut the salt, sugar, and saturated fat in many of its products, as well as offer more whole grain products, fruits, and veggies."
The company didn't disclose how much the effort will cost or whether it will impact its food prices. Asked about those issues, Antonacci wrote, "Food inflation like other fluctuations in pricing is always a concern. We believe higher quality of ingredients results in better tasting food."
Given its competitors are also touting their measures to provide wholesome food, Panera might be betting that consumers are willing to swallow slightly higher prices for peace of mind.