Clean and simple. That’s how Panera Bread is defining its new food policy. By 2016, the 1,800 locations in the U.S. will be rid of artificial ingredients. Food quality is the new dollar menu. American consumers are increasingly wanting natural ingredients in their fast food, and the marketing advantage is becoming all too apparent.

The move by Panera Bread comes as sales growth is slowing, and the company is looking to kickstart the lagging growth. In addition to getting rid of artificial ingredients, the company will also switch baking hours to the daytime. Panera wants to create a homier feel to its cafes. I wonder if that includes cutting prices too. That would make anyone feel at home.

While some will welcome the move, the company isn’t swearing off all targets of the natural food movement. Panera will still use genetically modified ingredients, and it will continue to sell Coca-Cola and Pepsi products that are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Seriously Coca-Cola and Pepsi, using real sugar in your products just tastes better.

The marketing advantage of ‘natural ingredients’ has shown that people feel better about what they are eating, even if the giant cookie is loaded with calories. Hey, no judging. Those things are good.

Panera’s new food policy is also about presenting their customers with greater transparency. We are what we eat, and now you will know what’s in that giant sandwich. The new stab at transparency also comes with a commitment to source ingredients from North American suppliers whenever possible.

All of this will be good news to food advocates, but it is a gamble by Panera to kickstart growth. Other chains are quickly switching to natural ingredients, and the industry is in a race to see who can win the quality war. Those dollar menus are quickly sharing space with ingredient lists.

As for Panera Bread, the company is forecasting sales growth of 2 to 3.5% this year. If the company can hit the top line number, it will outpace sales growth of 2.6% in 2013.


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