Since Panera launched both a new labeling system and a new video series to meant to “spark a dialogue about the food system” last week, the voices in my head have been bickering. It’s great that a major restaurant chain like Panera wants to further the discussion around something the average consumer ought to know more about. But where’s the line between discussion and marketing?
To quickly recap: Last week, Panera launched two new initiatives. A new labeling system will display the whole grain content of its breads. Coinciding with the new labeling system is the launch of an online video series, Food Interrupted. The program examines current hot topics in the food industry, from clean eating to animal welfare to sugar consumption, among others. Each episode also features well-known food experts and chefs.
Appropriately, the first episode is all about grains. It follows chef and restauranteur Marcus Samuelsson as he visits Tehachapi Valley, CA to discuss the past, present, and future of whole grains in the food system. That includes shedding light on certain truths about those grains, like the fact that bread can be labeled “made with whole grain” even if it’s less than 2 percent whole grain. (Bread has to be made with at least 50 percent to simply be labeled “whole grain.”)
“At our size and scale, we believe it’s part of our job to help revolutionize the food industry from the inside out – challenging the way things have always been done,” Panera CEO Blaine Hurst said in a statement. “From the whole grain in our breads to the ingredients in our food – we will be relentless, leading by example and committed to increased transparency.”
It definitely is, or at least should be, the job of major restaurant chains like Panera to use their reach to change certain aspects of the food industry and in the process better educate the people who buy their food. Trouble is, this is coming from a company who offers the same high-calorie, high-fat kinds of food on which the fast-casual industry was built. Debunking food myths with celebrity chefs doesn’t negate the fact that Panera still serves up bacon mac ‘n’ cheese that clocks in at 1,100 calories per serving.
It all reminds me of another Panera move, from a couple years ago, when the company revamped its menu and proclaimed its food items free of additives, chemicals, and other hard-to-pronounce ingredients. In theory, it sounds great, but as a group of food scientists pointed out, those changes don’t necessarily mean healthier menu options for consumers. In the scientists’ own words, “Daaaaaamn Panera…way to continue spreading the pseudoscience!”
So while its noteworthy and possibly praiseworthy that Panera continues taking steps towards disclosing ingredients, they’re also in danger of mis-educating consumers about what constitutes “clean” and “healthy” food. It’s not that the content is wrong, it’s just that many of the ideals discussed in the content aren’t something you’ll necessarily find at your local Panera. At the end of the day, white bread is still white bread, and there is no way to make bacon mac ’n’ cheese healthy.
Maybe in this case the slogan should be “don’t eat the pseudo-marketing.”