Selling Us a Bill of Health

If words like ‘pesticides,’ GMOs,’ ‘artificial colors and flavors,’ ‘growth hormones,’ antibiotics,’ ‘high-fructose corn syrup,’ or ‘processed food’ makes you crinkle your nose in distaste; if long, chemically-sounding names cause you to cringe and skip right on past a certain product, then you’re part of Big Foods really big problem.

After decades of junk food masquerading as real food, consumers are saying “Enough!” Big Food is scrambling to change its business models to meet the demand for better quality food. Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow, discovered that, for consumers, “big” has become the equivalent of “bad,’ noting that the top 25 US food and beverage companies have lost the equivalent of $18 billion in market share since 2009.

He said, “ I would like to think of them like melting icebergs. Every year, they become a little less relevant.”

What’s happening? Do we suddenly live in an alternate universe? Are food manufacturers paying attention and providing better quality foods? Panera is removing 150 artificial ingredients from their foods; Chipotle has gone GMO-free. Carl’s Junior is marketing an all-natural burger free of steroids and hormones.

It appears that lots of fast food and junk food purveyors are taking the high road and making healthier food available to their customers.

Or are they?

Let’s take a look.


Panera Bread
This item may feel as stale as 2-day old bread but it’s worth examining what’s going on since Panera Bread made a big PR splash, saying it was shaking up the fast-casual dining industry by removing more than 150 food additives from its ingredients by the end of 2016.

Great news, right? It is, but it also begs the question…150 food additives???? How the hell many are in their foods if they can so easily remove 150?

Panera's head chef, Dan Kish, said that he and his team pored over the hundreds of additives in the ingredients that Panera uses and asked two questions: “What is this? And why is it used?”

These are great questions and I am thrilled that they are asking them, but the important phrase here is “the hundreds of additives.” It turns out there are more than 450 ingredients in Panera’s food, natural and less than natural.

In spite of how great a move this seems, we must ask just how much credit the chain should get for its very beautifully orchestrated announcement. Are they really that forward-thinking or just tagging onto the sweeping changes affecting the entire junk food industry?

Here’s what I think. I love that Panera is shining a light on some of the more unsavory practices and ingredients in prepared and processed foods (and I use the term “foods” loosely…). We don’t need to bleach mozzarella ultra-white by adding titanium dioxide to it. Bravo to them for that.

Their complete ‘No No List’ ( is confusing to read as it contains ingredients they are removing from food as well as ingredients not contained in their food. Yes, you read right: ingredients not included in their food.

Why, you might ask? Could it be so that, at a glance, you perceive their action as more impressive? Why list lard on your “No No List’ when it’s not even in your food? High fructose corn syrup, artificial smoke flavor, glycerol ester of wood rosin and hydrolyzed corn or soy protein didn’t seem quite awful enough?

Kish says he believes that the direction Panera is headed is driven much more by his philosophy of food and cooking. "We think a simplified pantry is a better pantry," he says. I couldn’t agree more.

There's one more hiccup in Panera's "no-no" list: The company says it will not use any high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners, like aspartame in its menu items, which is great, but it will continue to sell beverages, like diet teas and sodas that contain these sweeteners. "It's a big omission," says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Panera's Kish says the company is working with beverage suppliers to move in the right direction. He says we should stay tuned. He can be assured that we will.

They still have a lot of work to do to create healthy options in their menu despite the removal of 150 additives.  Look at their Smokehouse Turkey Panini. It’s perceived to be one of their healthy options. It’s not a big, badass sandwich, yet it has 720 calories and 2590 mg of sodium (well over what is recommended we consume in a day, let alone in the form of just one sandwich).

In the end, while I congratulate Panera Bread for opening consumers’ eyes about the sheer volume of additives in our food and for looking to create healthier options because the demand exists, I, for one, will hold on the ticker tape parade until we see what the end result reveals.


Every proponent of mandatory GMO labeling did the happy dance with the announcement that Chipotle would remove all GMOs from its menu. As they trumpet their great move, it bears closer examination, in my view.

The company has said that GMOs don’t align with their vision of creating “food with integrity.” However, Greg Jaffe, an expert on GMOs at The Center for Science in the Public Interest says it shows little integrity and a big serving of marketing hype, calling it “hypocritical” and based on “smoke and mirrors.” The Washington Post says the company is simply engaging in a “global propaganda campaign.”


On the page announcing Chipotle’s new policy, called “Food with Integrity; G-M-Over It” you’ll find this disclaimer: “Many of the beverages sold in our restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients, including those containing corn syrup, which is almost always made from GMO corn."

Wait…what? It looks like a big exception to the no GMO policy to me.

Chipotle point to the problems caused by herbicide-tolerant GM crops, especially how the farmers are encouraged to use a single product, glyphosate or Round Up. This practice is well-known to cause the emergence of “super weeds” requiring more herbicide be sprayed in the long run.

In response to this problem, Chipotle has switched from soybean oil to sunflower oil to avoid GMO soybean oil. Here’s the problem. Many sunflower varieties have been bread to be herbicide-intolerant, specific to a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. Since farmers have begun to rely on these herbicides, weeds have become resistant to them, requiring more herbicides be sprayed. In fact, more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate. So why take offense at the weeds resistant to one weed-killer? Could it be that consumers know about glyphosate because of GMO label laws and Monsanto’s Round Up?

According to Chipotle, the main reason to back away from GMOs is uncertainty about the long-term safety of their use in our food supply and our resulting health. While it wasn’t too difficult to remove GMO ingredients from tortillas, cooking oil or corn flour, what about their meat?

It would be challenging and expensive to use meat only from animals that consumed a non-GMO diet because of the amount of corn and soy required to feed the sheer number needed to supply Chipotle, which is much larger than what might be needed for tortillas or cooking oil. Searching out a new supply of animal feed would raise costs…so Chipotle isn’t doing it.

In the end, the big question—bigger than GMO ingredients or not—begs to be asked. Is the food at Chipotle a healthy choice? From their sodium levels to calorie counts, I would say, not so much. Non-GMO is a great thing, but making food healthy for humans to consume is quite another.

Update: A class-action suit has been filed against Chipotle for false claims about non-GMO ingredients. You can read about it here:


Carl’s Jr. Presents: an All-Natural Burger

Famous for the 1/2-Pound Six-Dollar Thick Burger that weighs in at, yes, one-half pound with as many as 1660 calories (1110 from fat) and 2770 mg of sodium, you can bet I sat up straight when I heard the news. Carl’s Jr has introduced its All Natural burger.

Company executives explained their move.

“We’ve seen a growing demand for ‘cleaner,’ more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we’re proud to be the first major fast food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu…Millennials include our target of ‘Young Hungry Guys’ and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations.”

This new burger is made of grass-fed, free-range beef from animals raised without antibiotics, steroids or added hormones. The burger also includes a slice of “natural cheddar cheese and vine-ripened tomatoes.” With everything on it, a single burger has 1210 calories, 1440 mg of sodium and 710 calories from fat (including 95% of the recommended daily saturated fat intake), a good deal healthier than their signature Six-Dollar Thick Burger.

Sold at a pricey $4.69 for a single and $6.99 for a double, is this move all it’s cracked up to be?

While it’s great that food quality has become important to fast food companies due to consumer demand, this is by no means a healthy food.

Moreover, the term “natural” has not been defined by the USDA for meat products or by the FDA for the other bits of the burger. Other than containing no artificial color and undergoing minimal processing, the term natural to describe any product made in a fast food restaurant can be very misleading.

As if to underscore that point, the Carl’s Jr website carries this disclaimer under the photo of the All Natural Burger:  “Natural attributes refer only to beef patty, mushrooms and Swiss cheese.”



Even Target is getting in on the natural act with their new branded natural line, Simply Balanced.

According to their website, “Designed to meet the increasing demand for healthy food products at a great price, Target is introducing Simply Balanced, a new food collection within its owned brand portfolio.

The Simply Balanced collection is crafted to be free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, and avoids high fructose corn syrup. The collection never uses trans fats, is mindful about the amount of sodium in each product, and forty percent of the products are organic – giving guests more of the simple, recognizable ingredients they know and want – and a food label they can understand.”

They’re also revamping food courts at 14 stores this fall. USA Today reports that the company has recruited fast-casual chains Freshii, Pizza Hut, and D'Amico & Sons to replace the traditional hot dogs and nachos with something more "artisanal." Target says customers have expressed interest in higher-quality café options and hopes the new cuisine will satisfy customers' cravings.

Pizza Hut? With all the options out there for better quality food, Target went with Pizza Hut. Well, let’s see what they come up with for healthy “artisanal” food choices, I guess. I’ll reserve my judgment and not jump to conclusions.


What Does All This Mean?
It seems that lots of fast food companies and junk food peddlers are making the move toward natural and healthy. Papa John’s stands to invest about $100 million in creating natural products to add to the pizza empire. Major food corporations are moving to eliminate or cut back on additives and other less than natural ingredients.

It's clear from survey data that more Americans favor such changes. In  a recent Nielsen global survey it was revealed that an increasing number of Americans say they want fresh, natural and minimally processed foods. What's more, 1 in 4 North Americans said they would pay a premium for foods that were "all natural" or contained no artificial colors.

In the past year, several food companies and restaurant chains have announced plans to reformulate products to eliminate ingredients. “To me, this has gone way beyond anything that could even remotely be considered a fad and become a powerful trend,” said Carl Jorgensen, director for global consumer strategy who focus on wellness at Daymon Worldwide, a consulting firm.


Nestlé USA has indicated that it will remove artificial flavorings and colors from its chocolate candies like Butterfinger and Baby Ruth, as well as from Nesquik, its powdered drink mixes.

Hershey said it would work toward replacing high-fructose corn syrup in treats like York Peppermint Patties and Almond Joy candy bars. The company said it would move to make all of its products from “ingredients that are simple and easy to understand.”

Kraft has famously replaced the artificial colorings that give Macaroni and Cheese its orange hue with colors derived from spices like turmeric and paprika.

Now McDonald’s has become the latest major restaurant chain to say it will no longer sell products made with chicken treated with human antibiotics. Soon after, Tyson Foods, one of McDonald’s suppliers, said it would eliminate such antibiotics from its poultry and begin working to get them out of other meats as well.

Even Snackwell, the iconic reduced fat brand is undergoing a makeover with the goal of removing high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors from its products. “In this day and age, the consumer who was satisfied with reduced fat or fat-free 20 years ago is not satisfied with that anymore,” said Vincent Fantegrossi, chief executive of the Back to Nature Foods Company, which is owned by Brynwood Partners, a private equity group.

What makes this so tricky for these companies? Iconic brands became just that because consumers fell in love with the taste, texture and overall impression of a product. Companies gearing up to make change want to be sure that consumers don’t  detect negative effects on taste, texture or quality--or they stand to lose precious market share.

Most of the companies making changes have chosen their words carefully, saying they are merely responding to consumer demands, not making a value judgment on the ingredients they have used to create intensely-flavored, poor-quality foods.

L. Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited that General Mills got a lot of publicity for eliminating genetically modified ingredients from original Cheerios, but in truth those were a tiny part of the cereal’s ingredients. “I think what they were doing at least in part was testing the water to see if they could capitalize on it,” he said. “The move had no impact on sales.”

This brings us to the most important point of this article. In the end, companies care about one thing: their bottom line, as it should be. They don’t carry the responsibility for your personal health. That’s on your plate (pun fully intended…). If people continue to respond to surveys indicating they want heathier foods, then companies that actually offer healthy options should be rewarded with our business while those who simply blow smoke and tell tall tales, well, not so much.