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It's official: Panera Bread is now "100 percent clean."
The restaurant, which has been ditching all artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and colors from its in-store menu items and grocery store products for years, is finally free of all additives, the company disclosed on Friday.
"We can now say to the world that you can walk into a Panera and you can feel a positive sense that you know with absolutely certainty that there are no artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, colors from artificial sources on our menu," Ron Shaich, Panera Bread's founder and CEO, told CNBC.
Over the last few years, the company reviewed more than 450 ingredients that it sells in stores and reformulated 122 of them, including a large majority of Panera's bakery-cafe recipes.
"We did the hard work of doing this the right way and we want to challenge others to do just that," Shaich said.
Deli meats, in particular, proved to be a difficult challenge for the company to overcome.
"How do you create a moist product without a whole bunch of phosphates binding water in it?" Sara Burnett, director of wellness at Panera, told CNBC. "How do you create a product without preservatives in a deli meat that you need to maintain shelf life? How do you create deli meats without nitrates?"
Panera's deli turkey, for example, now utilizes water, sea salt and potato starch as a way to naturally preserve the meat and keep it moist.
Burnett also noted that the company had to find vendors that would be willing to create these new, reimagined products. Panera has partnered with more than 300 food vendors to innovate, replace and rethink how their food is prepared.
"The largest single cost was the thousands of man hours to do it," Shaich said. "We are spending more money on our food. Good food costs more, but we think consumers get it. We've been fortunate. We've been in a deflationary environment — food deflation, labor's gone up — but we have not taken price beyond inflation. "
Panera, which has seen its stock rise 60-fold in the last 20 years, according to Shaich, isn't going to keep mum on how it was able to clean up its menu. Shaich said that he is more than willing to help restaurant chains update their menus.
"We are happy to work with any of our friends, and they are often friends, others in the industry," Shaich told CNBC. "This is good stuff for everybody and we are doing this because it's good for guests. It's a better way to eat. ... So, we say to anybody, 'Come and do it. We're happy to help you.'"