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Coming Clean The trend of counting chemicals instead of calories is informing change in foodservice

Panera Bread introduced a list of additives that they will no longer use. Clean items on the menu, such as the Chinese Citrus Cashew Salad with Chicken, are made with no artificial ingredients.
PHOTO CREDIT: Cindy Han

It’s no longer just calorie counters or people with allergies who scrutinize the label of packaged food at the grocery store. We have entered an era of conscientious dining, where consumers pay close attention to what goes into their bodies, whether for overall health, dietary constraints from gluten-free to vegan, or ethical reasons such as animal welfare. Recent food labeling requirements have spurred major retail brands to put more care into ingredient lists. There’s an awareness that it’s critical today to appeal to the increasingly health-conscious population—Millennials, especially—who value simple ingredients with the least amount of artificial additives. Recently, Kraft announced that its iconic macaroni and cheese would derive its orange color from paprika, turmeric and annatto instead of artificial colorings. Pillsbury has put forth a new line of baking mixes with no artificial ingredients. These giant food manufacturers are responding to consumer demand.

People care that their food is as clean and simple as it can be. And it’s only natural that diners expect the same when they eat out. That explains the movement in foodservice that’s following retail’s lead and cleaning up the menu. Restaurants don’t have to meet the same labeling requirements, but they do have to meet their customers’ standards. But how is “clean” defined in foodservice today? And how does it translate onto the menu?

The Natural State

“The fundamental definition of clean labels in the foodservice industry is transparency,” says Diana Kelter, a Chicago-based foodservice analyst at Mintel, a global market research firm. “Consumers can’t visibly see if a dish features preservatives or artificial flavorings, and unlike food in retail, foodservice consumers are not presented with a full ingredient label on the menu. The clean label is a clear broadcast to consumers that a dish is either in its most natural state or is in the process of getting there.”

The “most natural state” is generally defined as having little to no artificial additives, with an emphasis on whole foods, and an ingredient list that looks like what you’d use in a home kitchen when cooking from scratch. But Kelter points out that clean food, today, goes beyond that.

“What determines a clean label is constantly evolving due to the increased transparency of the food industry,” she says. “While previously consumers only wanted to read a short and simple ingredient label, now they’re also interested in where those ingredients come from and how they’re produced, such as cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meat.”

It comes as no surprise that this evolving definition of clean is due to the growing demand from info-hungry Millennials to know what they’re eating and where it comes from. Diners are no longer content to hear that a dish is “all natural”—they want to know the source of the ingredients, whether they are sustainable and much more. More people have a specific reason to scrutinize what is in their food—whether they are gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan—creating an increased demand for transparency on the menu. So the scope of clean cuisine has expanded accordingly.

“Can you publish your ingredient list on the menu board?” asks June Jo Lee, VP of strategic insights with The Hartman Group, a food industry market research firm based in Bellevue, Wash. “That’s what clean is about—not just health and wellness. It’s about pride and closeness to earth and sustainability.” She says that the era of “traceability” in foodservice has arrived, with the open-kitchen concept and the trend toward more choice and customization of ingredients.

“It’s inevitable,” says Lee. “We live in an era of abundance, not scarcity, so the question is: what to eat, not if to eat. So it becomes the expectation that there’s a choice. No one will ever say they want more tricked-up, more junked-up food; no one says they want a ‘dirty’ label.”

Lee describes Millennials as the savvy generation that emphasizes value-based food: “It’s a new value system beyond price, quality and convenience. They don’t want cheap food, and it doesn’t mean just low-sodium or natural or sustainable. It includes notions of simplicity of ingredients that showcases your passion, your skill, your creativity,” she says. “Clean means pride in your work. Clean is harder to do.”

“The fundamental definition of clean labels in the foodservice industry is transparency,” says Mintel foodservice analyst Diana Kelter.

“The fundamental definition of clean labels in the foodservice industry is transparency,” says Mintel foodservice analyst Diana Kelter.

Setting the Standards

Stepping up to the clean challenge has boosted the reputation of some national chains. For the past several years, Panera Bread has embarked on a “clean food journey,” emphasizing transparency on its menu, no artificial additives, high animal welfare standards, and attention to how companies are impacting the food system.

Last year, Panera became the first national restaurant company to announce that it was issuing a “No No List” of all the ingredients that it was removing from its menu. The list is a comprehensive roundup of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives—including such substances as high-fructose corn syrup and artificial trans fats. The chain’s culinary team spent more than a year “un-engineering” its menu to remove artificial additives and find replacement ingredients or develop new recipes.

Among the cleaned-up categories: salad dressings. “Dressings have been one of the most complex projects given the number of artificial additives—namely flavors and preservatives—conventionally used for taste and consistency,” says Dan Kish, Panera Bread’s senior VP of food. “We’re proud to be offering bakery-cafe salad dressings without artificial additives. We believe they also taste better than ever.” Panera’s Strawberry Poppyseed & Chicken Salad and the new Romaine & Kale Caesar Salad with Chicken, for example, are made entirely free of artificial additives.

The chain’s beverages and soups have come clean as well. The popular Pumpkin Spice Latte is now made from simplified ingredients, including milk, real pumpkin, whipped cream, spices and salted caramel sauce. Panera is also offering bottled beverages as well as syrups that have no artificial additives.

And the entire soup menu is free of the artificial ingredients on Panera’s “No No List.” Common commercial soup ingredients—such as hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, maltodextrin and sodium phosphate—are out. Panera sells some 200 million servings of soup a year, including its top-selling Broccoli Cheddar. “A lot of care went into these recipes—in fact, we revised the Broccoli Cheddar 60 times—but we did have simplicity on our side,” says Kish. “Time and again, we’ve found that when you replace artificial additives with simpler ingredients, you achieve a better taste.”

Subway has announced a slew of menu and ingredient improvements over the past few years. The sandwich chain has cleaned up its fresh baked bread, taking out high-fructose corn syrup in 2011, then taking out the dough additive azodicarbonamide in 2014. Most recently, Subway announced it would serve cage-free eggs only, with the plan to complete the transition at all North American locations by 2025. “We know how important it is for consumers to feel confident that the food they eat is ethically sourced, and our customers care deeply about animal welfare,” says Elizabeth Stewart, Subway’s director of corporate social responsibility.

Carl’s Jr. joined in with an effort to go cleaner—and to attract the increasing number of health-conscious diners. The fast-food chain countered its not-so-healthful image by rolling out an “All Natural Burger” in 2014. The new burger contains no antibiotics, steroids or added hormones, and the beef comes from grass-fed, free-range cattle.

At Caribou Coffee, there is a steady movement toward maximizing use of non-artificial ingredients, according to Jenifer Hagness, senior director of product innovation. “We have always focused on superior taste, and we believe real, simple ingredients simply taste better,” she says. “Using ingredients we know and can pronounce enables us to meet the high taste standards we set for ourselves—and to stand out from the competition. Our new focus allows us to make drinks that simply taste better—and our customers have noticed.”

This year, Caribou introduced new vanilla syrup made with only four ingredients: pure cane sugar, water, natural vanilla flavor and Madagascar vanilla bean extract. It also developed a new real caramel sauce made with water, pure cane sugar, cream and butter. By the end of the year, Caribou’s goal is to convert all syrups and sauces to the clean label standard.

The definition of “clean” has evolved to include values from hormone-free to animal welfare to sustainability.

The definition of “clean” has evolved to include values from hormone-free to animal welfare to sustainability.

A Clean Mission

Of course, there are also chains that were founded on the principles of clean food. Chipotle made a name for itself not only for giving diners fast, customizable options, but for offering “whole or nothing” ingredients. The concept built its menu around “simple, fresh food without artificial flavors and fillers,” and a commitment to sourcing from local farms and standing behind its ingredients. Having this clean track record is no doubt helping the chain weather the past year’s storm of food safety issues and negative press. Because Chipotle is known for transparency on its menu, it can leverage that clean reputation—people are more likely to trust that Chipotle will make the necessary changes to ensure diners’ health and safety.

Columbus, Ohio-based Jeni’s Ice Cream stands out for its faithful adherence to using no artificial additives. “Jeni’s is a great example of the clean movement,” says Mintel’s Kelter. “Previously, ice cream was not scrutinized by the ‘clean label’ in a manner that was comparable to other menu dishes. Jeni’s Ice Cream is marketed as using the freshest ingredients, without the use of stabilizers and emulsifiers. When the brand suffered from a Listeria outbreak in 2015, its clarity in the sources they used and an outline of its step-by-step recovery process put consumers at ease—and resulted in long lines once the scoop shops reopened.”

LYFE Kitchen also centers its philosophy and its menu on clean ingredients. Progressive concepts like LYFE understand that diners no longer equate better-for-you with lack of flavor. It celebrates the link between good flavor and its use of organic, locally sourced and responsibly raised ingredients. Dishes like its Kale Caesar Salad are prime examples of clean eating; a simple, additive-free ingredient list includes romaine, baby kale, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, Parmesan, bread crumbs and Caesar dressing.

“This is just the beginning,” predicts June Jo Lee. “As consumers do more and more research into what they’re eating and making that quality distinction, everyone from the large-scale suppliers to packaged goods to foodservice will have to make changes. It’s a big cultural shift. A dish that’s clean implies that it is homemade, that it consists of the ingredients themselves. The baseline expectation will be ‘clean.'”

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.