Panera Bread – The Healthiest Fast Food?!?

Update June 3, 2014: Panera Bread announces they will remove all artificial colors, sweeteners, preservatives and flavors by 2016. Thank you #FoodBabeArmy for sharing this post continuously since April 2012 when it was first released. We are changing the world one company at a time by spreading the truth!

Update June 5, 2014: CNBC interviewed me earlier today about Panera committing to remove all artificial ingredients, here’s what I said: “Panera’s announcement is another example that consumer awareness and action is changing the food industry. … I appreciate Panera’s commitment to remove artificial ingredients and hope other major restaurant chains take notice to do the same.” (McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Domino’s, etc. – listen up!!!) I investigated Panera Bread back in April 2012 because so many people (including my own parents) were under the impression it was healthy. Panera was even voted one of the healthiest fast food chains despite their overuse of artificial ingredients! I wanted people to know the truth and when people know the truth, these companies have no where to hide – they have to change to meet demand! 

My lovely mother sent me home with a bag full of home cooked food last week on Easter. It included her famous Indian flat bread stuffed with radishes, lentil soup and stir fried cauliflower.  While everything was super delicious as usual, something caught me a little off guard… the Panera Bread bag she reused for me to carry home all those goodies.

Panera Bread is popping up all over the place…I see one outside my office window at work. I drove past three on my way to the park last Sunday…

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And then while my friend Amy was traveling through a small town in South Carolina that I frequently visit, which is also a food desert (a place that shall remain nameless or my better half would kill me) … She texted with an urgent “Where do I stop to eat?” I didn’t have a good answer for her and I certainly didn’t suggest Panera Bread.

So given these signs, I had to feed my inner curiosity of why I just cringe at the thought of eating there. What I found was some startling ingredients this oh so fresh and so clean looking bakery style deli uses in their famous salads, sandwiches, soups and breads.  With industrialized food sourcing over 90% of what Americans eat – It’s easy to get fooled, even with the simplest and freshest sounding menu items.

Luckily, Panera (like all companies should) provides you with all the information you need at your finger tips via their website where they list all the nutrition facts including the ingredients for all of their dishes. Here’s just a sampling of some of the ingredients that might make you think twice before stopping off for a bite…

First up - The Fuji Apple Salad. Looks pretty healthy doesn’t?


But nope… This salad is heavily processed. Those apple chips on top are made with canola oil and corn syrup which is highly likely to be genetically modified. The greek dressing has an ingredient most people use in their car engines as anti freeze aka propylene glycol… (If you want to know more about this substance – I go into detail about it in a Supermarket Birthday Cake Exposé.) Oh and look at all those tasty “natural” flavors (probably from Givaudan, a chemical food manufacturer).

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And then if you are brave enough to order something as simple as a ham & swiss on rye… you’ll get a dosage of nitrates. Nitrates are dangerous for your health and are toxic to the brain. They are linked to Alzheimer’s and many forms of cancer. No one should be eating them. There’s really no reason to eat chemically preserved cured and smoked meat. Get it fresh, get it organic, and or don’t eat it at all.  It’s that simple.

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What about the whole grain bread… It’s got to be whole grain, right? They are Panera BREAD for goodness sakes.

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Nope… Don’t get excited, it’s not 100% whole grain, just half. Like the rye bread that is used for the ham and swiss, the first ingredient after water, is enriched flour.  There is nothing whole grain about enriched flour – this bread should actually be called half white bread if they were really going to name this correctly and were telling us the whole picture.

The most upsetting menu items were in the soup department… check out the hidden MSG in this Broccoli and Cheese Soup & Low Fat Black Bean Soup under disguise names “hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract and yeast extract” This is food industry trickery at it’s best!  A little off topic, but relevant, the food company that makes Pop Chips is using this same trick too….I avoid this additive at all costs because MSG is an ingredient that literally excites your brain cells to death.

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Now comes the worst part of this whole story. Health Magazine rated Panera Bread as the #1 Healthiest Fast Food Restaurant in America.

REALLLLLLY?!  Is this the best fast food we can get?  Does fast have to automatically assume processed? Salad dressing with propylene glycol? Meats with nitrates? Enriched bleached flour bread? Soup filled with MSG?! A whole menu full of GMOs?

Health Magazine looked at the use of healthy fats, sodium content and the use of organic produce to determine their top 10 restaurants. Panera Bread got the #1 spot because they offer organic yogurt, organic milk, and organic cheese on their award winning kids menu, which I have to admit is a step above places like McDonalds but they are still using the same cheap ingredients that other fast food restaurants use to make money and to get you hooked.

If you don’t go into Panera knowing all the facts, you can get duped pretty easily.  Take for instance that acclaimed kid’s menu….if you end up ordering the kid’s ham sandwich instead of the grilled cheese for your little one, you end up feeding them nitrates, but it’s still considered the “healthiest” because your child has the option to wash it all down with organic milk.

Until fast food companies make some serious and bold decisions to be consistent in their messages about the quality of their food, what additives are in and not in their foods and use a measurable trusty worth standard – I won’t be buying it or supporting them. It’s far too confusing to keep up with all these ingredients for the typical consumer, so the food industry continues to win.

Luckily for us, in this case, we don’t have to work that hard to find the ingredient list. Let’s applaud Panera Bread for providing us the information to make good decisions about what we eat and what we feed our families.

Unfortunately for them, I’ll be looking elsewhere to spend my dollars. Where are you going to spend yours? And how do you get your food fast?

If you know someone who could benefit from hearing this information about Panera – please share this article with them.

In the Best of Health,

Food Babe

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657 Responses to “Panera Bread – The Healthiest Fast Food?!?”

  1. Ted

    fantastic job Vani! thank you so much for the work you are doing, you are a true revolutionary. It’s truly amazing that we would need advocates for not having poison in our food, but hey, that’s the world we’re living in

  2. Kathy

    why is it taking over 2 years?

  3. Gordon Bell

    Just wanted you to know how much we appreciate the investigative work you do for us. We use a lot of your delicious recipes and paying much closer attention to what we eat….plus we are referring more and more friends to you. With love and blessings, Gordon and Sanda

  4. Rose Marie

    Hi: So satisfied to note that Panera is being questioned. On a few occasions I have requested gluten free bread only to get the response that there is not a demand for it. What a disappointment. Hopefully, that will change also in the near future.

    • raechel Powell (to Rose Marie)

      it would be hard to have gluten free bread, they would have to have separate warehouses

  5. Chey

    Thank you so much Vani! The information that you provide to the public is truly amazing and extremely interesting, and I’ve been sharing it with my friends who also enjoy this knowledge. (We have a laugh every now and then on the topic of the beaver’s anal gland, aka vanilla flavoring.) Anyways, I have a friend with acne who has been trying to “clean up his diet to clean up his face”, and this has opened his eyes to the many chemicals and unnecessary additives in our food. I immediately told him about your website so that he can learn even more.:)

  6. karima

    thank you!!!

  7. Adrienne

    Dear Food Babe:

    I have recently lost 86 pounds. I did a great deal of research on how to stop those terrible cravings. I will add your website to my list of resources!

    I wish you the best of luck and continued success.

    Warm Regards,


  8. Gordon Bell

    We have stopped eating out…lets face it , we simply did not know what went into the food we were eating when we were eating out until we started reading the results of your investigations. It is so much healthier to take any recipe and make it at home using all organic ingredients!! You have really opened our eyes and made a huge difference our food choices. Thank you so very much Food Babe and keep up the good work. Gordon Bell

  9. Mandy

    I’ve been concerned about Panera fooling us for years. It’s unfortunate that a company can claim to be healthy, while loading their food with artificial ingredients and GMOs. Thank you for working to get Panera to change! In addition to not using artificial ingredients will they be using non-GMO ingredients? How humane are their practices regarding meat? Do they or will they be using meats that are cage-free, fed non-GMO vegetarian diets, and free of antibiotics?


  10. Marielle

    We really need to thank you Vani, and your team, for the great work you are doing to protect OUR health! It is unbelievable that all those additives, banned in Europe, are still used in USA. Shame on our politics who are allowing these companies to kill us, slowly but surely.
    I refuse to eat in those places, I refuse to put lotions on my body when we know that the chemicals are linked to cancer and hormones imbalance. And when yesterday I heard that heart attacks doubled for people 40 and under, I’m wondering if people realized that is is directly linked to what we eat and our environment.
    Keep fighting Vani, you have all our support!

  11. Robert

    too bad for them its going to take 2years!

  12. Stephanie

    I just want to point out that as of the last announcement that they will be removing artificial ingredients, they also have removed the ingredient list. If anyone can find it let me know maybe I just am having a hard time. But one step forward, 3 steps back in my opinion. At this rate, without posting the ingredients they are supposedly “updating” who knows if they are lying or not.

    • Assistant to Food Babe (Pam) (to Stephanie)

      Thanks for the comment Stephanie! I just checked Panera’s website and I do see the ingredients still listed. I just clicked on a menu item description and scrolled down to the “nutrition” section, and found the ingredient list there.

  13. Tammy

    I knew that something was wrong with Panera. Whenever I eat there, almost always I get a blood blister on my tongue. Then, while I was doing a search, I encountered your website. I have not been to Panera for almost a year, because I am scared to have nother blood blister, and now I know why. At least I should not go back at least until 2016.

  14. Eugenia Pryor

    The making of Panera Bread is said to be all natural, non bleach flour. My question is natural does not mean non GMO. Therefore, if it is not stated, it must be so. They have found a way to peddle the poison and through propaganda and they have made it appear to look good to the public….they even give the left over poison to the hungry…wow effective genocide. They can feasibly demolish the undesirable citizens. It is the tantamount to Hitlers concept of producing the perfect society and his mass extermination……the technical genocide that makes people wealthy as they control the population. Have them label the source of wheat….GMO or not. That will make them or break them!

    • Rebecca (to Eugenia Pryor)

      Eugene wow finally someone I can really relate with. You Def have the picture correct. There are some so slow to catch on. its amazing the cam survive. Lol and thank you Pam for all you do. .

  15. Venks

    2 days back when I had lunch at Panera …. was disgusted to see that the soup was being refilled in the holding container from a heated (may be microwaved) plastic bag!!!! Can you investigate these fast food restaurant processes (preparation steps) as well …. thx much.

    • Sarah C (to Venks)

      Coming from an ex-Panera employee, here is how we make the soups:

      The soup comes from the trucks frozen in big bags that we pre-heat in a thermalizer–a fancy word for a giant container of super hot water–until it’s 170 degrees F, then we pour it from the bags into whatever container on the line that the specific store uses. When there are any leftover soups by the end of the night, we put them in our own plastic soup bags into an ice bath to lower the temperature, and then we put them on a cart in the cooler (not the freezer this time) and reuse them the next day using the same thermalizer-170 degrees procedure. None of the soups are microwaved. Keep in mind that the vast majority of their soups are used up that same day, and any soups left over are gone by the second day.

      (What, did you seriously think that they cook all the soups from scratch? Or make the pastas from scratch? Only restaurants with real chefs do that.)

      The only problem with this, in my opinion, is that if the plastic bags contain BPA–which they most likely do–then the heat from the soup can make the BPA leech from the plastic into the soup itself. While this isn’t bad every so often, our bodies have been exposed to BPA so much throughout our lives that the health effects of this constant exposure aren’t really clear. So just beware.

      • Josh B (to Sarah C)

        Hey sarah C.. I know panera gets their soup base from sysco. Do you guys add anything to it once it comes in from sysco or just serve as is? specifically speaking of the broccoli cheddar soup? trying to recreate it at home and just curious. a lot of copy cat recipes call for nutmeg, but i see its more paprika, mustard powder, hot sauce. Anything you could add would be awesome.
        Josh B.

      • Sarah C (to Sarah C)

        Nope, we literally just get the bag of soup/pasta, heat it up, and serve. I have no idea how to make any of it from scratch. Sorry…

  16. Misty

    This blog is only helpful,to me if it offers a better place. I assume Panera does a better job than Burger King?? Coking at home is not always an option for me. Dont just criticize and leave me no alternatives. Tell me what they are doing right or tell me someone who is or leave me alone to eat my dinner in peace. Because you haven’t helped me at all.

  17. Lachelle B

    So I’ve been trying to cut out as much processed food as possible but there are just some times that I will have to eat fast food (I keep snacks with me as much as possible). Do you have any recommendations for a place that I would feel the least amount of guilt eating at? Love your website!

  18. Cheryl L.

    When I go to Panera Bread, I always feel stomach distress or nausea afterward. I can’t eat/tolerate soy products, so I asked to see their ingredients lists when I visited the last time. Not one item on their menu is made without soybean oil or soy products – not one! I’m assuming that the soybean oil used is GMO too. How can any item on the menu of Panera Bread be healthy? Certainly not for me.

  19. Charles

    I eat out very rarely…..wife cooks too good. First time in maybe pushing four months I went to Panera’s to get something better than garbage right..I am fairly sensitive to msg and the Asiago beef sandwich got me….I always get a certain headache in my left eye when exposed to this chemical ….have for years. Maybe I’ll come back in 2016…. They had a neato new way of ordering though.

  20. CJL

    Adding insult to injury, the manufacturer of Panera’s soups claims to NOT use MSG in their soups. So even if you dig a little to get the real story…you still can’t get the real story. Yet that website is all about how healthy their products are. Sad comment about marketing tactics inflicted on the public. Glad I found Food Babe.

  21. Katie

    Just recently read this post (thanks FB!) & tried to find the ingredients for several items on their mobile site. I can find the “nutrition facts” but not ingredients. Any suggestions?

  22. pamb (to )

    Not helpful at all, but you knew that. Not every meal can be made at home if you have any kind of life. Meeting friends for dinner? Forgot to pack a snack? What are you supposed to do, starve?

    Do the best you can to investigate healthy options and choose the option that fits your time/budget/surroundings.

    Massive negativity for no reason is unnecessary.

  23. Jeannine (to )

    That’s rude. My intention was only trying to contribute in comments.

  24. Jeannine (to )

    That’s rude. The intention of people here is to help and learn. Get your own blog since your such an expert.

  25. Angela (to )

    Ha. Technically I didn’t say “Yuck” .. but Yes I do think its nasty & no I dont think there is a soup fairy at Panera BUT it is VERY simple to heat things up in stainless steel vat .. if they weren’t so damn lazy to clean them out which is probably why they do it that way. I actually wasn’t sure how soup was transported to the stores but now I’m a little bit wiser.

  26. april (to )

    Sammy to be so health conscious you use a microwave maybe you need to do some research that is the worst thing to do with your food. takes all the nutrition out and it chemically changes the molecular structure of the food making it hard to digest. You also claim your not lazy using a MICRO is lazy.

  27. Gerald (to )

    Well said Sammy. I make dinner at home, so I can buy every ingredient, and make everything, from scratch. The pre-packaged mixes of this and that are just processed dreck, they never find their way into my kitchen. It really doesn’t take long to make dinner, that’s far more nutrtious, and healthy.

  28. Faith (to )

    I think that instead of being negative you may want to ask yourself what is he real root of this country’s food problems. I do agree that there may be an element of laziness.
    However in working on my PhD research in Food Policy what I have actually found to be the biggest cause of our nation choosing dangerous food, is that there is a lack of knowledge about food quality and nutrition in this country.

    You can can call people names and act condescending however, many Americans truly have no idea that our food policies allow food like GMOs, chemical additives, dangerous pestisides, etc to exist. They believe that our government (FDA, etc) are actually doing something beneficial for them and have their best interests in mind. As I learned more and more about the manipulative policies of our own governnent agencies and the large corporations and the advertising campaigns that are in place in this country I began to understand why the majority of the country do not have the information they need to make educated decisions about their own food.

    There is not a day that goes by in my research where I do not encounter someone (even very educated executives in technology or Health Care) who are not familiar with what Organic really means or what a GMO is and how it can negatively impact their health.

    The work that Food Babe does here is starting to open more and more Americans eyes so that they can make the decisions to cook at home or grow their own organic gardens. Until we truly educate this country and get out from under the powerful industries that mask the hidden dangers in our food we cannot simply assume that our fellow citizens are educated the way that we have been blessed to be.

    Instead of your negative responses here, how about talking to strangers at the grocery store about the disturbing ingrediants in that box of cereal they just put into their cart or starting a class in your local community to share your knowledge.

    We in this country need to remember to HELP each other so that we can once again become the GREAT country that we were. I am not sure how things got so off track in this country but working together in a positive way without judgement is the only way to true health and happiness.

  29. samantha (to )

    Hi, Sammy. While I appreciate your opinions & the fact that they may be valid, when viewed in this particular format, without the benefit of seeing your facial expressions & hearing your vocal inflections, they appear to be snarky, & even rude. While those things may be intended by you, if they are not, may I suggest you re-read them before posting, & possibly re-word them, in order to make your point more graciously? Thanks.

  30. missy (to )

    To Sammy
    We get it you like to cook at home!!

    Well not all of us might have the same life-style as you do obviously. Please respect that. Some of us do “sometimes” have to eat outside. And after reading this article… I have the right to be “feed” healthy foods by our local fast-food places. Just because something is prepared “fast” it doesn’t mean that it has to be so unhealthy.

    I support ppl like Babara’s friend who take the initiative to help others staying informed and taking the time to write letters to big fast-food chains like panera to reconsider their menu- options. ppl like that is that we should be supporting.

    (just as a side-note, we do cook at home every day from scratch)

  31. Jenna (to )

    The very fact that these people are concerned with what is going into their bodies is an example of them not being lazy. For most people, eating EVERY meal at home is next to impossible. I do everything in my power to prepare my meals and snacks myself to avoid these ingredients, but find it awfully frustrating that there are slim to no convenient options for me if I cant. Coworkers are going out for lunch? It would be nice to have an option where I could both join AND eat. RUnning late in the morning and forgot my painstakenly prepared lunch in the fridge? Out of town for work, last minute day trip with friends, out on the town and all of a sudden starving?This week, I realised exactly how difficult it is to eat this way. I was sent on a two day training seminar held at a local hotel, sent the company my diet restrictions and even offered to bring my own meals. I was told not to worry, I would be accommodated. Continental breakfast consisted of conventional yogurt, pastries, and muffins (none of which I could eat), thankfully, I had thought ahead and prepared my own snacks. They had to have the master chef come out to speak with me at lunch and prepare me a completely separate meal, as I could not eat off the buffet. At the dinner restaurant of choice, all I could eat was a house salad (non organic) with olive oil and had to settle for a veggie patty and hope the ingredient list they gave me was correct. NOTHING else on the menu was edible for me. I am a young, single 20 something and find it extremely difficult to live this clean eating lifestyle, but do the best I can because I believe so strongly in it. There are plenty of people my age who believe in it, have been turned off this lifestyle simply because they cant find the time, so I applaud people who are pressuring companies to offer these choices and I bet that they are in fact making 90 percent of their meals at home and would just like to have the OPTION of convenience when things like LIFE get in the way.

  32. Carole (to )

    Oh my goodness, who are you? I have been following these comments and yours are consistently negative and mean. Everyone here is on a different learning curve and it’s not your right to criticize. Please Food Babe, ban this Sammy person from comments – she/he adds nothing to the discourse.

  33. oh my (to Faith)

    Well said, Faith!

  34. Peg (to Faith) (to Faith)

    Faith!!! Thank you for your post!!! I agree with everything you have said. I am just learning about GMO’s and have lot’s to learn. Education and awareness is the first step. I appreciate you!

    And to all the people writing to companies and doing petitions, THANK YOU! I appreciate you.

    And to Sammy, well…… God Bless you! Surely you can’t be a happy person when you call people names and write such mean things to various posters. Unless we agree with you, we are stupid and lazy. This is such a positive helpful thread except for the way you have posted things and the sharp, nasty comments you made. So I’m sure now you will have terrible things to say to me also and I will say again, God Bless you and I hope you find your happy.

    To everyone else…..thanks! The comments have been very informative for me.

  35. Cheri (to D Hill)

    Oh SOMEbody works for Panera…huh? Go troll another page. You are the one who has no clue and your negativity is not appreciated here.

  36. kim (to D Hill)

    Hey D Bag, like what you said helped anyone whatsoever, don’t eat processed stuff, duh.

  37. D Hill (to Cheri)

    Oh Really, no I used to eat there from time to time, knowing full well it was not “organic”. But I guess that just gets all over you 12 year old screaming drama queens

    Oh & by the way – I have just as much say about this bullsh!t as you do. So FuKK off.

  38. Kristinnn (to kim)

    Kim, you seem like a very reasonable and civil person- Because the basis of all good rebuttals are emotionally directed. But not really…

  39. marie (to Peg (to Faith))

    Unfortunately everyone has a right to a comment,but that keeps it interesting.
    Its so funny reading the rude comments- its like he is a Monsanto scientist that has drank the Kool-Aid!

  40. marie (to Carole)

    Unfortunately everyone has a right to a comment,but that keeps it interesting.
    Its so funny reading the rude comments- its like he is a Monsanto scientist that has drank the Kool-Aid!

  41. Kristen (to missy)

    I think she is respecting that you can’t always make your own food. She is just letting you know what you might be eating when you choose what is advertised as the “healthiest” fast food.

  42. Rita (to Cory)

    Propylene glycol and ethylene glycol are both used in antifreeze.

  43. Kristin (to Cory)

    Not to mention that nitrates & nitrites ARE necessary for human health and healthy for us. Or you can believe the government propaganda that shut down small curing houses in the 1970s and tells us that milk fresh from the cow (or goat, sheep, horse, camel) is harmful.

    If you want more info, WAPF & the Naughty Nutritionist have a great article & study on nitrates/nitrites and cured meats. Don’t dis traditional food!

  44. Scott (to Cory)

    Actually Propylene glycol is used as antifreeze in marine and RV applications, so who looses credibility now. Do your research though that would require some effort.

  45. Jackie (to Cory)

    Well, which one would YOU eat?

  46. silver (to Scott)

    Its not the classic antifreeze, and anything that is able to lower the freezing point of water can be called antifreeze. The reason to use this antifreeze is cause its not toxic.
    The acute oral toxicity of propylene glycol is very low.
    Propylene glycol does not cause sensitization and it shows no evidence of being a carcinogen or of being genotoxic.

  47. Shawna (to Jeff Salzman)

    Umm, why is everyone arguing about the relative safeness of ingesting chemicals? Just because your body can readily metabolize a certain amount of anti-freeze chemicals without killing you, does this qualify it as edible food? I’m pretty sure that a little dog pooh wouldn’t kill you either, but just like a chemical used in anti-freeze it’s not (or shouldn’t be…) food and no one (I’d hope, though this chemical safeness argument has me worried) would want to spread that on their panera bread…

  48. Brandi (to Jeff Salzman)

    Really?? You’re actually condoning eating these CHEMICALS? Food Babe is merely pointing out the harmful ingredients in everyday fast food that we are unaware of. You go ahead and eat your chemicals until you glow in the dark–I’ll boycott them and keep eating real, whole foods, thank you very much.

  49. Brandi (to Shawna)

    Amen, Shawna!

  50. Karen Scribner (to silver)

    Where is the bottle of food grade propylene glycol located in the grocery store?


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