- Business Insider/Hayley Peterson
Chipotle’s CEO and founder, Steve Ells, says chains such as McDonald’s and Panera Bread are misleading customers with claims of “clean” food.
The word is commonly used by chains to indicate a lack of artificial ingredients, though it has no formal definition from the Food and Drug Administration.
Ells, however, does not see it as including “natural flavors,” which he took shots at his competitors for using after his chain announced on Tuesday that it was the first national restaurant brand with no added colors, flavors, or preservatives of any kind on its food menu.
“They don’t have a clean chicken nugget!” Ells told Business Insider of McDonald’s. “Because they still have industrial ingredients … It’s not something you buy at the farmer’s market – oh yes, where’s the ‘natural flavor’?”
Ells argues that most chains, including McDonald’s, that have ditched artificial flavors simply swapped the offending ingredients for natural flavors that serve the same purpose. Most natural flavors are still created in a lab, but they use extracts from natural ingredients instead of artificial ones.
There’s no evidence that natural flavors in and of themselves are bad for you. But as companies move to simplify their menus to contain fewer, more recognizable ingredients, natural flavors go against the trend, as they alone can contain 50 to 100 ingredients.
McDonald’s spokeswoman Becca Hary told Business Insider that the company was continuing to “raise the bar” in how its food was prepared, sourced, and served.
“Removing high-fructose corn syrup from our buns, serving chicken free of antibiotics important to human medicine, and removing artificial preservatives from our Chicken McNuggets are clear and tangible quality improvements of which we are proud,” Hary said.
It’s not only traditional fast-food chains that continue to use natural flavors. Panera Bread, for example, announced in January that it had completed its mission to make its menu 100% clean, but it continues to use natural flavors in its food, a difference highlighted by Chipotle on Tuesday.
Speaking in a phone interview along with Ells, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer, Mark Crumpacker, said “the biggest difference” between Chipotle’s and Panera’s claims of a clean menu was that Chipotle didn’t “have any of these industrial additives of any kind.”
“If you look at other fast-food menus, they might have been successful in removing things that are labeled artificial flavors or artificial colors, or even artificial preservatives, but they have to end up replacing them with something else which performs essentially the same function,” Crumpacker continued. “So, these menus are still littered with colors, flavors, preservatives, dough conditioners, gums, emulsifiers, humectants. All those things are still on the menu -“
“Kate, did he just say humectants?” Ells interrupted. “Do you know what a humectant is?”
I did not – proving Ells’ point. Ells doesn’t want anything on Chipotle’s menu that customers can’t immediately identify as something they could pick up themselves at the supermarket (Humectants are ingredients added to maintain foods’ textures.)
Panera Bread told Business Insider that it was working to use more “whole” ingredients instead of natural flavors. The task is more complicated for the chain, however, because its menu is more extensive than Chipotle’s.
“We’re continuing to strive to use ingredients that you would find in your own home pantry,” Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy, told Business Insider. “We’re continuing to move on that journey. And, natural flavors are one of those ingredients that, when we have a good alternative, we prefer to use a whole ingredient.”
The final step in Chipotle’s long-term mission to ditch additives and preservatives was adjusting the recipe for the tortilla, a mission the company had been working on for two years. The new flour tortillas contain just five ingredients, while the corn tortillas (used to make chips) are made with only corn masa flour and water.