The 'No No List' of Artificial Ingredients: Good for You or Just Good PR?

Panera looks to one-up the competition by banning scary-sounding ingredients.

(Photo: Naoko Kawachi/Flickr)

May 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Is it a food industry revolution—or a circus of PR stunts? That’s the question you have to ask as yet another splashy press announcement hits the media touting a company-wide overhaul intended to give comfort to a public increasingly wary of processed foods. This week it’s Panera and its new cutesy-titled “No No List,” the equivalent of a food police “most wanted” poster of more than 150 artificial ingredients that the chain says it will banish from all its food by the end of next year.

“We’re trying to draw a line in the sand in the industry so that consumers have an easy way to know what’s in the food they buy,” Panera CEO Ron Shaich told The New York Times.

At first glance, the move wouldn’t seem anything but good. Anytime the media report on anything related to artificial ingredients, it seems, you can expect a list of tongue twisters up front—“acesulfame K,” “ethoxyquin,” “azodicarbonamide”—a polysyllabic soup that conjures the specter of mad scientists engineering the Frankenfood that so many consumers have come to fear.

No doubt, Panera is kicking some chemical doozies off its ingredient list. The preservative butylated hydroxyanisole is classified as an endocrine disruptor by the European Union and considered a possible human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Working Group, while the nitrates found in cured meats have likewise been deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ken Cook, president and cofounder of the Environmental Working Group, is lavishing praise on Panera.

“With this bold commitment, Panera is showing impressive leadership in the restaurant industry to give consumers what they increasingly demand: food with fewer artificial ingredients and additives,” Cook said in a statement. “We are grateful that the Panera team reached out to our experts and listened to our recommendations to improve their fare, eliminating EWG's ‘dirty dozen’ food additives from their food and using other information from our Food Scores database. We commend Panera for stepping up in support of healthier food made with ‘cleaner’ ingredients.”

But Panera’s “bold” decision is likely to face some of the same criticisms that greeted Chipotle last week, when it made its own big announcement that it was eliminating all GMO ingredients from its food.

As NPR has pointed out, adopting its no-GMO policy really wasn’t too difficult for Chipotle—and the policy contains some significant loopholes. For example, the chain will still serve up meat that may have been raised on GMO feed.

Likewise, Panera’s “No No List” appears impressive. But of the “Dirty Dozen” the Environmental Working Group cites, only about half are used at Panera. Indeed, Panera’s list is padded with more than 30 artificial ingredients, such as the scary-sounding acesulfame K and ammonium chloride, that the chain admits its food doesn’t contain.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the advocacy organization that has been a big old thorn in the side of the processed food industry, pretty much sums up the more cautious appraisal of Panera’s headline-making news.

While applauding the chain for tossing a number of additives, such as artificial food dyes and the aforementioned BHA, overboard, Jacobson goes on to say: “Just because something is artificial or its name is hard to pronounce doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Some of the additives Panera is ditching are perfectly innocuous, such as calcium propionate or sodium lactate—so those moves are more about public relations than public health.”

Even more broadly, whether we’re talking about Panera or Chipotle, or about similar moves by big food companies like Kraft and Nestlé to remove certain artificial ingredients from their products, the danger lies in lulling consumers into a false sense of security. Whatever halo of wellness might be conferred on a brand through such highly publicized campaigns, that still doesn’t mean a 1,000-calorie lunchtime burrito bowl at Chipotle, say, or a similarly calorie-packed panini at Panera is good for you.