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Ingredient shaming backfires

27th July 2017

Panera has been at the forefront of smart-casual dining in the US, expanding from a small Missouri-based bread chain in the 1980s to more than 2,000 outlets by 2016. In 2015, it was named Fast Company’s most innovative company, with its rollout of Panera 2.0 deploying apps and ordering kiosks that streamline ordering and delivery of food.

Panera has also built a reputation based on making its food offering healthier – pioneering the listing of calorie counts on menus, and eliminating artificial trans fats from the menu in 2005 Panera’s pork and poultry is antibiotic free and its beef is free range. In January 2017, the company triumphantly announced it had eliminated artificial ingredients.

So given this history, perhaps it’s not surprising that someone in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to take the Food Babe approach and tweet about a commonly used, and safe preservative called sodium benzoate. Here is an image of the Panera tweet:

The response was immediate and damning, many tweets that responded to Panera pointing out that many compounds and elements that are active in fireworks – like sugar, nitrogen and carbon – are also found in food. Many also pointed out that sodium benzoate is naturally occurring in fruits such as cranberries, prunes and apples.

While the tweet was no doubt intended to foster trust in and loyalty the Panera brand, and its crusade against all things artificial –  based on the Twitter response, it has had the opposite effect. Many tweets attacked the company’s “anti-science fear mongering” with tweeters vowing never to eat Panera again.

The Food Babe approach – which could broadly be described as “this chemical is in something you wouldn’t think of eating, so why would you want in your food” – has gained traction in recent years. This combined with increased interest in so-called “clean-eating” and “organic” has prompted many food companies such as Kraft to respond, removing ingredients that are safe but not considered natural enough by consumers. The impact on consumer health are debatable, and while claiming victory, activists like the Food Babe have stoked increasing fear and distrust of food.

While Panera has ridden that wave, this latest Twitter campaign may be a sign that consumers are starting to tire of marketing based on “chemophobia”. Calling out ingredients that have non-food uses and trying to make them sound dangerous is perhaps not a long-term strategy. Time will tell, but at the time of writing, the offending Tweet remains!

This is another example of a fast food chain that has presented itself as “better” and as a result is being held to a higher standard of truthfulness, with some observers appearing to take a particular pleasure in this marketing misstep. Perhaps Derek Lowe – who has a PhD in organic chemistry – put it best in his blog published on the Science Translational Medicine website –  puts it best:

“So Panera, you’re playing on people’s lack of knowledge of chemistry in order to make yourselves look good. Your reasoning is faulty and your science is wrong. Your ads are offensive to anyone who actually understands chemistry, not that you care much, and you’re claiming a halo for yourselves that you don’t have. Do go on, though.”

Mic drop