If It's Bad Enough for Panera, It Should Be Bad Enough For You
Okay, we all know there's been a paradigm shift going on in the fast food world for awhile now. If the king – McDonald's – isn't dead, it's on the critical list as legions of claimants to the throne line up with “healthier” options, whether perceived or actual, on their menus. Among the up and comers kicking Ronald McDonald in the pants and to the curb is Missouri-based Panera Bread. The fast casual chain with a healthier menu comprised of soups, salads, pasta, sandwiches, and bakery items has been on a meteoric rise of late, copping a place on BusinessWeek's list of “Hot Growth Companies,” staking a claim as North America's healthiest fast casual restaurant in the pages of Health magazine, and being rated by Zagat as #1 for Best Healthy Option and Best Salad as well as being noted as one of the most popular restaurants for eating on the go. Ridi, pagliaccio, the writing's on the wall.
So when the news came out the other day that this paragon of healthy eating was excising a long list of ingredients from its menu, I was intrigued. Most intriguing, of course, was what they were doing there in the first place. Turns out Subway wasn't the only “healthy” eatery making its bread with additives used in the production of yoga mats. (Remember that one?) But.......give them a break. They've seen the error of their ways and they are trying to make amends. Kudos for that.
There are some familiar faces on the new “No-No List,” as the restaurant is calling it. Aspartame, caffeine, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are all there along with caramel color, artificial colors, and the aforementioned azodicarbonamide (the yoga mat stuff) that have been making the news of late. But that's just the tip of the chemical iceberg, boys and girls. Check out the whole megillah below, courtesy of Panera Bread.
Now run to your pantry and fridge and see how many things in there have many, if not most, of the same ingredients. Yep. That's what I thought. Don't feel bad. The preservative pushers have made everything on the list so ubiquitous it's nearly impossible for the average person to avoid them. I do my best. For instance, if I can possibly and knowingly avoid HFCS, I do so. And nothing in my kitchen contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose. I don't use bromated flour. I check for partially hydrogenated oils. I avoid caramel coloring when possible and when not possible, I at least limit its consumption. As for the rest of the list? Wow! Good luck with that. If you buy anything in a box, a can, or a frozen package, some of that stuff is going to be in there. And most of it is pretty scary.
Let's start at the top of the list: the sweetener acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K. Also known as "Ace-K," it's a potassium salt that contains methylene chloride. Methylene chloride is a known carcinogen, long term exposure to which can cause nausea, headaches, mood shifts, liver and kidney problems, problems with eyesight and possibly cancer. Ace-K may also contribute to hypoglycemia. And it's probably in that “healthy” protein shake you had this morning. Or in your Diet Coke.
How about calcium proprionate? That's good stuff. They put it in bread and baked goods. It's an anti-fungal agent that helps give store-bought bread a shelf life roughly equivalent to the half-life of a nuclear isotope. Of course, it has the potential to permanently damage your stomach lining by exacerbating gastritis and inducing severe ulcers. Kids love that gummy white bread and all those baked goodies, right? Well, studies have shown that chronic exposure in children might cause behavioral changes such as irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance. These behavioral changes appear to be reversible when the substance is removed from the child’s diet. Oh, and if you're a migraine sufferer, you might be interested to know that calcium proprionate is linked to migraine headaches. Fermented foods, which naturally produce calcium propionate, have historically been linked to headaches. The website FoodReactions warns that if you experience any adverse side effects to other fermented products, you may also experience the same side effects with calcium proprionate.
How do you feel about EDTA? Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (see why they abbreviate it?), also listed on some labels as “disodium EDTA,” is actually a prescription drug used to treat lead poisoning among a host of other things. As a “safe” food additive, EDTA is used to “fortify” grain-based products such as breakfast cereals and cereal bars. It's also used to enhance the color, texture, and flavor of food. Of course, there's the abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, low blood pressure, skin problems, and fever it can cause. Now I'm sure there isn't much of it in the foods we consume, but it should be noted that it is considered unsafe to ingest more than 3 grams of EDTA per day, or to take it for longer than 5 to 7 days. Too much can cause kidney damage, dangerously low calcium levels, and death. EDTA might make heart rhythm problems worse. It might interfere with blood sugar control because it can interact with insulin, making it a poor choice for diabetics. Avoid using EDTA if you have a liver condition or kidney disease. And it might increase the risk of seizure in people with epilepsy or in people who tend to have seizures. Other than that, fuhgeddaboudit. No problem.
I could go on and on – and I usually do – but you've got eyes and fingers: go look it up for yourself. It'll scare the hell out you seeing what the government watchdogs – or is that “lapdogs” – at the USDA and the FDA allow commercial food producers to pump into our stomachs. “GRAS,” they call it; “Generally Regarded As Safe.” The party line is “oh, a little bit of this and a minute amount of that aren't going to hurt you.” And that may be true. But look at how much of “this” and “that” are in everything you put in your mouth. Day in, day out, year after year after year. When does the cumulative effect of all those “minute amounts” start to kick in? I don't know about you, but I prefer to wait until after I'm dead to be embalmed.
Buona fortuna, Panera Bread. I don't know how you plan to eliminate all that stuff from your menu, but I'm glad you're doing it. Maybe you can come over to my house and help me eliminate it from mine. I'm conscientious about such things to the point of being considered a food-Nazi by some and I still find eliminating or even limiting preservatives to be an almost impossible task. That's because I'm really not a food-Nazi. Yes, I try to buy fresh and wholesome foodstuffs as much as possible, but I succumb to the lure of Oreos and soda and potato chips just like everybody else. So unless you're one of the hoity-toity who only eat organic food grown by cloistered monks at a secret compound high in the Rockies or something, chances are you're going to be unwittingly preserved by the nutritionally void dreck foisted upon us by the commercial food industry and its minions. But you can try! Sometimes it works. Look at the so-called “Food Babe” who mounted a successful campaign to get Kraft to remove Yellow Nos. 5 and 6 from their classic macaroni and cheese. And look at all the labels these days that practically scream “NO HFCS!” That happened because people spoke up and said they didn't want HFCS. Money talks and yours will speak volumes when you use it to purchase real food, even if you have to pay a few pennies more for it.
Read the “No-No List” again. Check your labels and start Googling. Then follow Panera's lead and begin removing questionable ingredients from your daily diet. Knowledge is power. The food companies bank on the fact that most people don't even know what ninety percent of the crap listed on the label is. Folks trust that it must be okay because otherwise “the government” wouldn't allow it to be in there. Ri-i-i-i-i-ight! Do your homework and then take the “No-No List” with you when you hit the supermarket. Shop like your life depends on it. Because it does.