NEW YORK — Panera says it will remove artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives from its food by 2016, a reflection of the growing distaste people are showing for such ingredients.
The chain of bakery cafes, which has about 1,800 U.S. locations, is making the pledge as part of a "Food Policy" it unveiled Tuesday that outlines its commitment to "clean" and "simple" ingredients.
The announcement comes at a time when Panera Bread is facing slowing sales growth and working to jump-start its business through a variety of means, such as revamping the sometimes confusing way people order and get food and switching baking hours to the daytime to create a homier feel in cafes.
Last year, Panera's sales rose 2.6 percent at company-owned locations open at least a year. That was down from 6.5 percent in 2012 and 4.9 percent in 2011.
This year, the St. Louis-based company is forecasting sales growth of 2 to 3.5 percent.
The unveiling of Panera's sweeping "Food Policy" also underscores how positioning foods as natural has become a marketing advantage, regardless of whether it brings any nutritional benefits. Part of the attraction for customers is that they feel better about what they're eating, sometimes because they don't feel as guilty about how many calories they're consuming.
Still, declaring foods as being natural or free of artificial ingredients has the potential to invite criticism and even legal troubles.
A lawsuit filed in November, for instance, alleges that Whole Foods Market uses a "spectacular array" of artificial ingredients in some of its store-brand products, despite the grocer's promise that the products contain "nothing artificial."
Panera also isn't swearing off genetically modified ingredients, another issue that is gaining attention in certain circles. Unlike Chipotle, which says its menu will soon be free of GMOs, Panera uses too many different ingredients to be able to make that claim.
And neither chain has any plans to stop selling fountain sodas from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, even though the drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.