With consumers looking to eat more whole and natural foods, food companies are in a race to eliminate artificial additives that pad their ingredient lists. Restaurant chains ranging from Papa John’s to Chipotle are doing it. So are major manufacturers like Nestle, Kraft, and General Mills. But even though the industry as a whole is slowly changing, it’s still a lot of work, as Panera chef Dan Kish is finding out as the company works to completely cut out a list of 150 artificial preservatives, flavors, sweeteners, and colors from its food menu by the end of the year.
Panera announced today that its soup menu is now all-natural, after it finished up its salad dressing earlier in 2015. Artificial ingredients it had to remove included sodium phosphate (a preservative), maltodextrin (a thickener), and hydrolyzed soy and corn protein and autolyzed yeast (all flavor enhancers).
One of its most popular items, Broccoli Cheddar Soup, took 60 formulations before the new recipe was perfected, says Kish. And the artificial ingredients were sometimes in surprising places: The dijon mustard, for instance, in the recipe contained a hidden preservative. And Panera couldn't find an adequate cheddar cheese that didn’t contain sodium phosphate, so it had to work with a supplier to create a new product. One of the biggest challenges was making sure the soup tasted the same after removing the (delicious) preservatives.
"It’s a bit of a dance on the technical side," says Kish. "There was a flavor trail that went along with it that we had to overcome." He and his team had to tinker with the recipe to replace the replace the "brightness, sharpness, and lactic notes" that were lost.
On the positive side, Kish says that removing artificial ingredients has given the company the chance to uncover nuances of flavor that previously had been masked. Where there were flavor gaps, they tried to add the flavor of herbs, acidity, or sweetness (like honey) to offer a boost, as opposed to adding salt (another health no-no). The cost of making the soups, in the end, is about the same, he says.
"This is less about checking things off a list and more about thinking about our food holistically," says Kish.
Though removing artificial ingredients is the latest healthy eating trend, it’s debatable how big the relative health upsides are. At the very least, they may be a distraction from more important health issues that consumers might focus on, such as avoiding sugar or limiting portion size (ahem, those ginormous bread bowls).