panini sandwich

Is Panera Healthy? Carcinogenic Concerns & Pissed GF Vegans

Lately, you probably have noticed the increased amount of commercials Panera Bread has been running. The message they’re trying to drive home is that they “just don’t make sandwiches, or something.”

By highlighting the avocado, smoked chicken, and fresh focaccia, they’re trying to differentiate themselves from what Americans typically think of as fast food.

Now it is true that the Panera gluten free menu is more tolerable than say, McDonald’s or Burger King, but that’s not saying much.

As a celiac, you probably want to fill up on more than just a salad. A kale Caesar or seasonal greens salad may be healthy, but not satisfying.

Sure, the Vegetarian Autumn Squash soup and turkey chili are filling gluten free options, but it seems you can find a GF soup almost anywhere. Is Panera soup bad for you? Well consider this metric…

The regular sized chili from Panera has more sodium than the large from Wendy’s (1,210 vs. 1,170 mg).

All of their soups are sodium bombs which clock in at over 1,000 mg per serving. The only exception is the Vegetarian Creamy Tomato, which is just shy of that at 920 mg. The worst is the very popular Bistro French Onion, with a heart-blasting 1,990 mg of sodium.

If you insist on soup, we would recommend you order the size for kids. Same nutrition, but it’s a smaller portion.

As the song goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Some of the nutrition facts about their sandwiches will absolutely shock you. Take a gander at them next time you’re there.

bird eating food
Like the GF crowd, if you’re vegan you should expect to eat like a bird.

Similar to the celiacs, those on plant-based diets are also fed up with the limited food options. Are Panera Bread bagels vegan? Sort of. It should work for most, but by the strictest definition of vegan it might not. Many of the bagel flavors, including the plain, contain sugar or brown sugar.

Since their website doesn’t clarify, you may want to veer on the side of caution and presume it to be bone-charred sugar, since that is by far the most common type.

Are their smoothies vegan? The Green Passion Power and Carrot Pineapple Power smoothies are, but the others make use of milk or dairy ingredients.

Vegan or not, don’t let the word “green” in that name fool you. Whether or not its the healthiest smoothie is debatable. Here are the ingredients of Green Passion Power smoothie:

Peach Mango Base (Mango And Peach Purees, White Grape And Passionfruit Juice Concentrates, Water, Natural Flavors), Water, Spinach.

The only “green” thing disclosed is dead last. What comes before it are a bunch sugary fruits.

The one other choice you have for a dairy free is the Carrot Pineapple Power smoothie. Here are those ingredients:

Spiced Carrot Fruit And Vegetable Base (Water, Carrot Puree, White Grape Juice Concentrate, Apple Puree, Banana Puree, Orange Juice, Carrot Juice Concentrate, Ginger Puree, Cinnamon, Turmeric, Natural Flavors, Citric Acid), Water, Fresh Pineapple.

The turmeric and ginger in there is good for you, but the first ingredient listed is water. The second is carrot. After that, it’s mostly a downhill disaster of sugar.

The type of fruit from the smoothie’s name – pineapple – is dead last.

For the light eaters on a plant-based diet, a hearty bagel sandwich topped with veggies might fill them up. Would that be protein-rich? To the best of our knowledge, lentil patties or tempeh to put on it are not an option.

Now the most challenging will be a Panera gluten free vegan meal… as in, both of those dietary restrictions at the same time. If that’s you, it may take several of their Seasonal Greens salad to fill up.

Being only 180 calories a piece is great for a side, but not an entree. You might need to buy $50 worth of these salads just to tame your growling tummy.

Panera restaurantThere has been talk of them testing out gluten free bread in select markets, but until they come out with vegan GF bread nationwide, their menu options seems to be less-than-ideal for celiacs and plant-based eaters.

If/when they do come out with a gluten free bread, we bet it won’t be vegan. It will likely contain eggs like Udi’s and similar brands do.

To be honest, Taco Bell is probably a better bet for vegans. At least if you’re goal is to actually fill up on more than leaves. And while it’s not safe from cross-contamination, surprisingly their menu has quite a few options which are both vegan and gluten free.

Oh but wait, you don’t want Taco Bell because it’s not organic. Or GMO free.

News flash: Is Panera organic? Hardly. Their menu does have a few things like organic juice, milk cartons, and yogurt. But when it comes to food like their vegetarian chili or chicken, not so much. Here’s what the Panera website says in their FAQ about whether or not their menu is organic (1):

“We utilize select organic ingredients and label them as such on our menus. Any organic ingredients or items will be labeled as Organic in their nutritional information”

Is Panera GMO free? A couple years ago, a number of bloggers were claiming that the chain planned on removing 100% of GMOs from their menu. That assumption might have came from a company press release which hyped “clean ingredients” and having a transparent menu (2).

While they have removed or committed to remove many artificial colors and flavors, Panera still make use of GMO ingredients in their menu. They have not removed GMOs. Under the FAQ on their website, here is their policy or statement about them:

“GMOs are a tremendously complex issue due to their extensive reach into America’s corn, soy and sugar supplies – ingredients and sub-ingredients in much of the food we eat. For Panera’s menu, which includes over 450 ingredients across a variety of seasonal menus, the task of identifying GMOs is additionally complex. However, we are longtime advocates for and a leader in menu transparency, and we will continue to engage experts and discuss GMO labeling as a company.”

Kind of sounds like a bulls**t response.

And it’s not even because they’re choosing to use GMOs. Whether you like it or not, it’s their choice to do. This is America and you can always vote with your dollar.

Rather, our problem is with their hypocritical and contradictory messages they give, portraying themselves as “not just a sandwich, or something” and creating that natural, folksy feeling with their marketing campaigns.

For that reason, we might actually have more respect for KFC. Yeah, their food is a total disaster. Some here at Superfoodly have not ate a bite from there in literally more than a quarter century. But at least KFC is not trying to create the impression their food is super healthy and exceptionally natural. Their marketing matches their food more accurately, at least in our opinion.

Criticisms aside, it is true that Panera is a step above fast food and many other fast casual eateries. It’s hard to eat at Chipotle without getting sodium bombed. If you get a sandwich at Subway, it won’t be featuring the delicious Panera breads or certain higher-end ingredients. It goes without saying that many items on their menu are healthier for you than a typical burger and fries combo meal.

burnt sandwichBut what about the things you won’t find disclosed in the ingredients or nutrition facts from any restaurant in America?

There is a potential Achilles heel of the Panera menu. The good news is you can largely avoid it, if you order strategically.

The bad news is that most people are completely unaware of a concerning compound which is created when carbohydrate-rich foods are cooked using certain methods.

Especially the cooking methods which create intensely-focused drying heat, leading to those dark brown and black marks.

Like a panini press.

Acrylamide, a Group 2A carcinogen

IARC cancer ratingsThe World Health Organization, through their International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), categorizes acrylamide as a Group 2A carcinogen (3).

That rating stems from industrial exposure – think factory workers being exposed to acrylamide. It has been used for industrial applications since the 50’s. Beginning in the 70’s and 80’s, countries began labeling it as a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin.

In 2002, it was discovered that acrylamide was also a fairly prevalent by-product in many carbohydrate-rich foods when they’re cooked certain ways.

Diet aside, tobacco smoke is the other common way people are exposed to it.

The WHO’s Acrylamide Working Group, which is comprised of leading scientists, last convened at the EPIC Steering Committee Meeting in May 2013. The website for that EPIC study says this (4):

“AA [acrylamide] is metabolized in the body to form the epoxide glycidamide (GA), a genotoxin. AA and GA form adducts with DNA and with amino acids in haemoglobin.”

In June 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published their very first full risk assessment of dietary exposure to acrylamide (5). Bold emphasis added:

“Experts from EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) reconfirmed previous evaluations that acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.”

“Evidence from animal studies shows that acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide are genotoxic and carcinogenic: they damage DNA and cause cancer. Evidence from human studies that dietary exposure to acrylamide causes cancer is currently limited and inconclusive.”

That about sums up where the scientific community currently stands. There is plenty of evidence in animal models showing the harmful effects acrylamide can have on them.

When it comes to exposure in human food, this is a much newer topic than industrial exposure.

Does acrylamide in food – such as in a panini sandwich – cause cancer? No, you can’t say that. There is not yet proof that it does. While it seems unlikely based on the evidence, it is at least possible that the levels in food might not be high enough to cause a statistically significant increased cancer risk in humans.

But that doesn’t stop a lot of people from rightfully asking the question if it’s cancer causing?

For those hoping on a definitive answer in the near future, that’s unlikely. Cancers are generally slow to form.

For example with pancreatic cancer, it takes an estimated 11.7 years according to Johns Hopkins (6). Some may form faster, while others are even slower. Brain cancer is estimated to be up to 30 years (7). Some have even said 40.

Until there are more long term and well-designed human studies, this compound in food will remain highly controversial.

The bottom line is that there actually appears to be more compelling evidence to suggest that acrylamide is dangerous relative to the more talked about dietary concerns. Evidence against GMOs and the trace amounts of pesticides in non-organic food is weaker.

Freshen up your knowledge about pesticide half-lives to better understand organic scams. Of course eating any pesticide residue is not healthier for you, but based on how quickly they degrade, for a lot foods it doesn’t make sense to buy organic (unless you’re rich).

Panera healthy options (and what to avoid)

While alarming to hear, it’s important not to get overly-obsessed about the potential risk from acrylamide in food.

And if we are going to pick on Panera for burnt bread, it’s only fair to point out what probably are much bigger dietary sources in your life; French fries, potato chips, and coffee.

For that reason, you should also check out the list of lowest acrylamide coffee, based on actual measurements.

Getting back to the sandwiches “or something” you can order, here is what’s good at Panera Bread and what you should avoid.

Avoid: Panini pressing or toasting

healthy sandwichThe most popular Panera sandwich is the Bacon Turkey Bravo. Given its smoked Gouda cheese layered over sliced turkey breast and applewood-smoked bacon, the 120 mg of cholesterol and 11 grams of saturated fat is no surprise.

Perhaps the one good thing it has going for it is that it’s not on grilled bread.

That one aspect reduces acrylamide big time. While you can’t avoid it in food entirely, simple things like that can greatly reduce your exposure.

With some places, it’s not always easy to customize your order and make it a “lower acrylamide” version. Wood-fired ovens often go hand in hand with black bottom pizzas.

The good news is that at Panera, all it takes is one simple request to make that flatbread, baguette, or hoagie roll healthier.

Just don’t have your bread go in the panini press. Order it not pressed. Or switch it out for their delicious freshly sliced rye or honey wheat.

Whether it’s a sandwich or a bagel, don’t toast it either. In our book, the healthiest bread at Panera will be anything other than their panini pressed or toasted versions. While not ideal, we would even prefer the plain white bread over those.

And why do you even need intentionally added burn marks anyway? Their bread is already delicious as-is!

Recommend: Modern Greek Salad With Quinoa

cooked tricolor quinoaRemember that part about the Panera gluten free menu being a disappointment? There are 3 salads, 2 bowls of soup, and cookies to eat.

Not much there.

Oh yeah and those are listed as “gluten conscious” not gluten free. The menu says “as long as you don’t have celiac disease, a heightened gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy” and the asterisk next to that corresponds to the statement “given the likelihood of cross-contamination.”

They’re just being honest, you have to respect that. But couldn’t they at least make this “gluten conscious” menu more robust?

Not only is it our top choice among the salads, but we think this is the best thing to get at Panera. We appreciate that they use both white and red quinoa. The latter has a higher ORAC value and it almost certainly costs them more versus doing all white, so it suggests they’re not cutting corners.

If you order it without feta, it would be vegan and gluten free. For an actual meal, we vote this as the healthiest option on the menu, as well as the best tasting. If you’re on a raw food diet, the Modern Greek and the Seasonal Greens salads will be the closest you can get. The problem with the latter is that it’s only lettuce, tomato, onion, and cucumber… not very filling.

Avoid: The sodium bombs

salt shakerThe Classic Grilled Cheese is a double whammy. For one it’s grilled (duh) and that browned surface will inevitably contain acrylamide. But even setting that aside, it has 1,580 mg of sodium! The smaller one on the Panera kids menu is still 1,090.

A max of 1,500 mg per day is what the American Heart Association recommends for optimal health (8).

You’ve exceeded that with just this one sandwich.

McDonald’s Big Mac has “only” 960 mg of sodium… still too much, but it’s almost 40% less than the Panera grilled cheese.

One of these restaurants is an image of being good for you, while the other is viewed as the epitome of what’s wrong with the American diet. Sometimes these perceptions are correct, but not always. That’s why what Donald Trump eats is not always as bad as it seems.

Oh and if you think we cherry picked the grilled cheese because it was the worst example, we didn’t. Take a look at the salt in some of their others…

  • Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich = 1,900 mg
  • Frontega Chicken Panini = 2,050 mg
  • Ham & Swiss Sandwich = 2,050

If you don’t want a sodium bomb, what’s good to eat at Panera bread? Not much when it comes to their sandwiches. These are the only two that have 500 mg or less:

  • Tomato Mozzarella Flatbread = 460 mg
  • Roasted Turkey Cranberry Flatbread = 480 mg

Those two only have 6 and 11 grams of protein, respectively. If you’re into fitness, so little might not be acceptable to you. Especially for bodybuilders.

Recommend: Plum Ginger Hibiscus Tea

hibiscus flowerWe drink a lot of water at restaurants. Why? Because if you want a low or zero calorie beverage that’s unsweetened, it often entails an artificial sweetener or the side effects of stevia. We approve 100% of the ingredients in this tea:

Plum Ginger Hibiscus Tea (Nigerian Hibiscus, Apple Pieces, Sweet Blackberry Leaves, Rosehips, Natural Plum Flavor, Carob, Ginger).

Going back to the topic of sodium, did you know that there have been at least two randomized, double-blind, and controlled trials involving hibiscus, whose results suggested that it might benefit blood pressure? (9) (10)

This is our favorite thing at Panera to drink. It’s the complete opposite of the next item, which is the absolute worst drink you could possibly order there.

Avoid: Hot cocoa

salted caramelIn defense of Panera, their espresso and hot drinks are not any worse than what you will find at Starbucks or other coffee shops.

Still, do you really need the 510 calories and 84 grams of carbs in this mug of hot chocolate?

Yes, their chocolate chip marshmallows are something unique. Admittedly, it is hard to resist the drizzle of salted caramel, but didn’t you already get enough salt with your supper?!

Carrageenan is listed not once, but twice in the ingredient list for the Signature Hot Chocolate. There is also sorbitan monostearate. Are those bad for you? No, at least not in the amounts approved for food.

Studies with mice fed sorbitan monostearate “showed enlargement of the kidneys and a higher incidence of nephrosis compared with controls” but that was only seen when it was 4% of their diet (11). That study concluded 2% of diet was the cutoff point for any potential safety concerns.

The amounts approved by the FDA for food usage a tiny fraction of that. Regardless, we point out these ingredients because we know many of you are trying to minimize the consumption of certain chemicals in your diet.

Recommend: Steel Cut Oatmeal with Strawberries & Pecans

pecansNothing under their AM menu is specifically categorized as “gluten conscious.” Smoothies and cookies appear to be your only options. You’re basically screwed when it comes to gluten free breakfast options at Panera.

For everyone else, including vegans, our favorite thing is the steel cut oatmeal that comes topped with strawberries and pecans.

It’s low calorie (340), low sodium (160 mg), and high fiber (9 grams). The protein is lacking (6 grams) which is why we would recommend adding your own scoop of Sunwarrior protein powder. The oatmeal’s cinnamon sugar topping is bad news, so go easy on it or avoid entirely if you have the willpower.

You will be glad to hear the pecans on top are actually the highest antioxidant nut.

With the exception of the extra-sugary Cinnamon Crunch flavor, the bagels are okay for breakfast too, just don’t get them toasted.

Avoid: souffles and breakfast sandwiches

Based on what we’ve seen, the egg breakfast souffle and sandwiches don’t appear they would fit within our “acrylamide conscious menu.”

Recommend: Gluten Conscious Monster Cookie with Nuts

oatmeal cookiesThat’s not a typo. Believe it or not, we’re recommending a cookie. It’s one of their most popular items.

It’s pointless to have a list of healthy Panera Bread options if all we do salads and zero calorie tea.

It’s kind of like the parent who tells they’re kid “if you’re going to drink, do it around me so I can watch you.”

Same thinking here. If you’re getting something naughty, we at least want you to get the best of what’s bad for you.

Plus, finding a yummy gluten free or gluten “conscious” dessert is not something you often find with fast food. If you’re gluten free, we don’t want you missing out on this.

The Gluten Conscious Triple Chocolate Cookie with Walnuts probably does taste better. But the very first item on the ingredients list is powdered sugar! Not exactly what you would call a low glycemic food.

On a purely relative basis, the gluten conscious monster cookie is healthy for you. Here are the ingredients:

Rolled Oats (May Contain Wheat), Peanut Butter (Peanuts, Dried Cane Syrup, Honey, Natural Honey Flavor, Palm Fruit Oil, Salt), Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips (Sugar, Unsweetened Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin [Emulsifier], Natural Vanilla Extract), Sweetened Dried Cranberries (Cranberries, Sugar, Sunflower Oil), Brown Sugar, Walnuts, Sugar, Pasteurized Whole Egg, Unsalted Butter With Natural Flavors (Pasteurized Cream [Milk], Natural Flavors), Vanilla Natural Flavor (Water, Alcohol, Vanilla Bean Extractives), Invert Sugar, Sodium Bicarbonate, Salt.

Yeah, still lots of sugar. It’s not diabetic friendly, but at least the first ingredient is rolled oats versus sugar. Pair this with the Modern Greek Salad With Quinoa for dinner and then you won’t feel so guilty about indulging in this dessert.

Neither of the Panera cookie recipes are vegan since they both contain eggs and dairy. But if GF is your only requirement, the monster cookie is a 370 calorie treat that has 8 grams of protein and only 220 mg of sodium.

By some metrics, you might even argue this cookie is better for you than their sandwiches.

How to combat acrylamide?

chicken on grill
Contrary to public perception, in a moment you’ll find out why grilled chicken may be the unhealthiest meat there is

This is not an issue you can blame on one restaurant or even one category of food. It’s so prevalent, reducing dietary exposure will require a paradigm shift in consumer thinking.

Today, everyone thinks grilled is the way to go. It’s perceived as being good for you.

Ironically, “good for you” grilled chicken tests out as having the worst amount of HCAs. Similar to acrylamide, HCAs are another type of advanced glycation end product (AGEs) which is created during certain cooking methods.

When meat is boiled in water, almost no HCAs are produced.

But here’s how grilled chicken and steak measure out:

  • grilled steak =  810 ng of HCAs per 100g serving
  • grilled skinless chicken breast = 14,000 ng per 100 g

For those who want meat, the best food at Panera will probably something with their sliced turkey, not the Greek grilled chicken salad. Turkey is an very underrated meat when it comes to even the basic nutrition facts. Compare Tofurky versus turkey and you will see what we mean.

Are there other foods you can eat to help offset the effects of AGEs? Research involving compounds found in cruciferous vegetables – like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts – have demonstrated potential in research.

However the most evidence probably supports the benefits of carnosine for possibly having anti-glycation advantages.