Panera Bread advertises that they offer "fresh great-tasting food you can trust made from the highest quality ingredients and highlighted by anti-biotic-free chicken, whole grain bread, select organic and all natural ingredients." Sounds healthy, doesn't it? But is it really??
This weekend, when I was out shopping and wanted to grab a quick bite to eat, I saw a Panera Bread nearby, so I thought I would check it out and see if there were any healthy options that would work for a gluten-free girl like me in a cafe that focused on bread. Rather than reading from the overhead menu, I grabbed a take-out menu that offered more descriptions of each item and studied it to see what healthy options I could find.
They offer a wide range of foods, so I was sure I could find something that would satisfy my hunger. Avoiding all bread and sandwiches left me with the salad and soup selections. And then I narrowed it down to just salads since so many commercial soups contain MSG in one form or another as the broth base. Oh, no….the last thing I wanted was to be left with some iceburg lettuce-cucumber-tomato-boring salad. But then I saw that they offered quite a large number of various salads with more interesting ingredients than I typically find in restaurants. That was a pleasant surprise!
I ordered the Roasted Turkey Harvest Salad and loved the dried cherries, pears, pecans, and field greens in it. I figured the dressing contained questionable ingredients, so I only used a teaspoon of it on the salad. Mmmm…it was delicious!
When I got back home, I started researching the ingredients in their food and read what other bloggers have said about their food. I found some internet sites that called Panera "the healthiest fast food restaurant", while other bloggers raked them over the coals because of some additives and sugar some menu items contained.
What I found at Panera is exactly what I expected to find. Just like most chain restaurants, you really have to search to find the clean, healthy choices. But I did find them amist a host of unhealthy choices.
Of course, they are not the healthiest restaurant out there, but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water just because they are not perfect. Ok, that being said…
What is healthy at Panera Bread?
Breads and Baked Goods: Avoid!
- These contain white (enriched) flour as the main flour, so none of them are whole grain. Most also contain soy oil, and while their French Croissant actually contained butter, it also had propylene glycol. While the FDA says propylene glycol is a safe chemical additive, it is still not food! Low toxicity or not, I don't want to consume it. And no gluten free breads here. So, it's best to skip the breads.
Sandwichs and Panini: Avoid if Gluten-Sensitive
- These use white (enriched) flour breads which contain gluten. Their Mediterranean Veggie looks pretty good aside from the bread.
- Unfortuately, their soups contain MSG disguised as "yeast extract" or "autolyzed yeast extract". No thanks.
Salads: Safe aside from dressings and some wheat ingredients
This is where the healthiest choices are. But beware of the dressings! The salad dressings use soybean oil is the main oil, but I also found propylene glycol used as a thickener, corn syrup solids, and MSG in some of the dressings. You can always ask for vinegar and olive oil instead.
Best Salad choices:
- Thai Chicken Salad (get without wontons which contain wheat)
- Steak and Blue Cheese Salad (get without the frizzled onions which contain wheat flour)
- Classic Salad- a great choice aside from the soy oil and sugar in the dressing.
- Roasted Turkey Harvest Salad- great choice, just go easy on the dressing with soy oil or don't use it.
- Asian Sesame Salad- (get without the wonton strips which contain wheat)
Smoothies: Caution-contain sugar and dairy
Made with organic yogurt and a fruit base, they look pretty clean. However, they do contain a good bit of sugar.
Breakfast: Caution- contains oats, some sugar, dairy
- Steel Cut Oatmeal- good choice but the oats are not certified gluten free (the cinnamon topping does contain some sugar and soy oil)
- Strawberry Granola Parfait- Not too bad! The granola contains oats, which may potentially have some wheat contamination if you are highly sensitive. They use organic yogurt and I was pleased to see more natural sweeteners (honey, maple syrup) and only a little soy oil in the granola.
- Fruit cup- fresh, cut fruit- can't go wrong with that.
Overall, there are more healthy choices at Panera Bread than at most fast food restaurants. Their advertising sure makes them sound more healthy and organic than they actually are, which is misleading. They do have a great Nutrition Calculator that has the ingredients of every menu item available.
If you are highly sensitive to gluten, you may want to avoid this restaurant. After all, they are a bakery and flour can get everywhere. But if not and you are looking for some healthier fast food, you can find some healthy choices at Panera Bread.
Becky Mauldin, N.D. is a Naturopath, teacher, speaker, and author. She has authored two gluten-free cookbooks, Vibrant Health and Recipes for Life. Her story of recovery from an incurable illness has inspired many people around the world. She is known for making a healthy diet achievable for real people and real life.
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