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Why Chipotle's health claim may not see the same success Panera has found

Panera Bread's Southwest Chicken Tortilla Bowl
Source: Panera Bread
Panera Bread's Southwest Chicken Tortilla Bowl

Chipotle Mexican Grill is trying really hard to get out of the penalty box.

Their latest effort harkens back to their heritage as a restaurant chain focused on fresh, healthy ingredients. This week, the Mexican chain announced it had finally found the right formula to eliminate all additives from its tortillas — a step that makes the restaurant preservative-free for all but its drinks.

But it remains to been seen if this new claim will be enough to erase the stigma it acquired after a string of foodborne illnesses scared people away from the chain. While Chipotle was sorting out its food safety issues, customers found other restaurant options with healthy halos, including fast casual rival Panera. So Chipotle needs to win back those diners.

What's more Chipotle may be confusing matters by quibbling over what constitutes a truly additive-free menu.

"It's going to take [Chipotle] time to get back on track," said Bonnie Riggs, an NPD Group analyst. "They still have their work cut out for them for consumers to find them trustworthy."

The focus on healthy, fresh, and "clean" food is a good start.

In January, Panera touted a claim that its menu was "100 percent clean" after having reviewed more than 450 ingredients that it sells in stores and reformulating 122 of them, including a large majority of its bakery-cafe recipes. Since then consumers have a more positive perception of Panera.

Panera continued to build on its clean menu by disclosing Friday that its soda fountains will feature signage that lists each beverage's caloric and sugar content. It will also be launching some new, low-sugar beverages.

YouGov BrandIndex, a market research firm, polled hundreds of consumers over age 18 about which brands they would consider eating the next time they went out to eat. The scores that brands receive are the percentage of respondents that said they would eat at that location the next time they went out to eat.

For Panera, that percentage score fluctuates between the high 20s and mid 30s for the general public and the mid-to-high 30s for consumers who consider themselves "healthy eaters."

In the chart below, the dark blue line represents these self-described healthy eaters, while the lighter blue line signifies the general population.

"The dark blue line is always above the light blue line, so that's saying that a higher proportion of people who consider themselves to be healthy eaters would consider a Panera restaurant versus the general population as a whole," Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov BrandIndex, told CNBC. "The why behind that is a bit of conjecture or inference."

Marzilli said that there are several factors that could influence the healthy eaters into making this decision, including perceiving items like salads and vegetables to be healthier options, seeing food that is sourced locally or organically as fresher than other food and viewing meals that are prepared to order more desirable than premade dishes.

He also said that the divide between the two lines begins to widen after Panera's announcement in January that its food was 100 percent clean, suggesting that the company's clean campaign is resonating with healthy eaters.

Chipotle, however, has struggled in recent months, with consideration among healthy diners falling below that of the general population. Marzilli said that this could be an indicator of underlying health concerns considering Chipotle's food safety history.

Similar data from the NPD Group also indicates that Panera's shift to preservative- and additive-free food has boosted perception among diners. In 2015, 30 percent of respondents said that their primary reason for going to Panera was because of its "healthy, lighter food."

In 2016, that figure jumped to 34 percent. This is the highest percentage of consumers seeking healthy food as their primary reason for going to a chain that NPD's Riggs has ever seen.

Chipotle, in comparison, saw its score drop from 21 percent in 2015 to 20 percent in 2016.

"They're still not over their problems," Riggs said.

In addition, Riggs said that Chipotle needs to focus on its own operations rather than try to detract from its fellow fast-casual chains. The burrito chain called out companies, including Panera, for using natural ingredients as preservatives when it made its announcement Tuesday.

Chipotle's spokesman Chris Arnold told CNBC that many companies say they have removed artificial additives and preservatives, only to replace them with "natural" alternatives, which are made in a lab. Arnold said that natural beef flavor, for example, is synthesized from plants.

"We do use natural preservatives and we do use some natural flavors for some products," Sara Burnett, director of wellness at Panera, told CNBC. "They do serve a role in our menu and, especially, preservatives, in particular, serve a very important role in terms of both quality and food safety, which are things we don't compromise on."

For example, instead of using artificial preservatives in its salad dressings, Panera uses rosemary extract.

Panera CEO Ron Shaich has been talking about his restaurant's better-for-you food for years and he's not about to stop. Shaich told CNBC that he's willing to help any restaurant that wants to clean-up its menu and openly praises chains that have already done so.

"I'm old friends with Steve [Ells, CEO of Chipotle]," Shaich told CNBC. "We've helped them along the way every time they've need help."

Shaich's biggest pet peeve in the industry revolves around chains that are "clean-washing" their menus. Shaich classifies this as restaurants that take one menu item, like a chicken nugget or chicken sandwich, revamp it to be antibiotic-free or preservative free, but still have items on the menu that contain artificial ingredients.

On more than one occasion, Shaich has called out McDonald's for making its McNuggets antibiotic-free, but not revamping its dipping sauces to eliminate artificial ingredients.

Only 5 percent of consumers actually live a "clean eating" lifestyle, according to NPD. The research firm considers clean eating to be the consumption of food that has no processing, additives, chemicals, or preservatives.

While Chipotle has made a distinction between its additive-free menu and the menus of chains like Panera, it seems consumers may not understand the differentiation or even care, said NPD's Riggs.

"I don't know if [consumers] really care," Riggs said. "They care about things that they are most knowledgeable about and are aware of... getting in that deep, I think it confuses things."

She said that most consumers just want to know what companies have done and don't want to get into the "minutiae" of how it was done.

"Don't muddy the waters," she said.