Soda or Bear Claw? Panera to Post Added Sugar in Drinks It Sells

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Panera Bread appears to be the first major restaurant chain to offer its customers information about the amount of added sugar in the beverages it sells.

“We’re going to help you understand that you can have a soft drink, but please know that when you drink it, you may be drinking well in excess of the federal government’s daily recommended allowance of sugar,” said Ron Shaich, the founder and chief executive of Panera.

Mr. Shaich noted, for instance, that a 20-ounce serving of Dr Pepper contains 64 grams of added sugar — or 14 grams more than the maximum amount recommended for daily consumption under the United States Dietary Guidelines for 2015-20. “We’re not playing the food police here,” he said. “But we do want to make you aware of the sugar in what you’re drinking.”

He said a customer would get less added sugar eating one of Panera’s chocolate chip cookies, bear claws or blueberry muffins than drinking a 20-ounce serving of Pepsi.

“I would much rather have a pastry than a soda — not that I’m encouraging people to eat more pastries,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food advocacy group. “People should think of a soda as a cookie and make the same choice about drinking it as they would about eating a cookie.”

Panera said its labeling is starting with sugary beverages because they are among the top sources of calories and added sugar in the American diet.

The move comes in advance of a May deadline for complying with federal regulations requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more stores and other retail food establishments to post calorie counts on their menus and at soda fountains.

Many restaurant businesses, including Panera, have already added calorie counts to their menus, but those regulations do not require disclosure of added sugars. (Restaurant companies are required to provide customers with additional nutritional details about items on their menus if asked for them but do not have to post them, Ms. Wootan said.)

Under regulations established by the Food and Drug Administration during the Obama administration, makers of packaged foods like cereal, cookies and spaghetti sauce will have to add a line to the nutrition panels on their products disclosing the amount of added sugar. Companies have until mid-2018 to comply; it is unknown whether the Trump administration will alter the initiative.

Moreover, it doesn’t apply to restaurants.

As part of Panera’s drive to improve the nutritional quality of the food it sells, in 2014 the company began stripping its menu of artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other ingredients on what it calls its “no-no list.” That task finished, the company now is turning toward the beverages it sells. “We think there isn’t enough transparency and that people don’t know what’s going on nutritionally with what they’re drinking,” Mr. Shaich said.

Panera has also reformulated two of its proprietary drinks, Passion Papaya Green Tea and Agave Lemonade, reducing their sugar content by roughly 40 percent. Passion Papaya now contains 30 grams of added sugar in a 20-ounce serving without ice, while the same size serving of Agave Lemonade contains 34 grams of added sugar.

Those drinks, together with Blood Orange Lemonade, will be labeled “medium sweetened” with the amount of added sugar in them noted.

Panera is also offering three drinks with no added sugar — Iced Black Tea, Plum Ginger Hibiscus Tea and Prickly Pear Hibiscus Agua Fresca. The first two will be labeled “unsweetened,” while the third, which contains naturally occurring sugar, will be labeled “lightly sweetened.”

All other beverages will be labeled “fully sweetened.”

“We’re going to sell less soda,” Mr. Shaich predicted. “But we’re also going to offer customers other choices.”

Asked whether he expected any blowback, Mr. Shaich offered the vocal equivalent of a shrug. “I get to meet a lot of people who offer me their opinions about what we’re doing,” he said. “I have yet to meet a person, though, who has come up to me and said, ‘Can you put those chemicals and preservatives back in your food?’”