Fast Food Still Full of Additives, Even As Menus Simplify

A sign is posted in front of a Panera Bread restaurant in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The same preservative Panera plans to drop remains widespread among fast-food restaurants, even as some chains simplify menus to cater to evolving consumer taste buds.

For example, Panera listed sodium benzoate as one of a long list of additives it's axing from its foods. The FDA's website explains the chemical is "not found to occur naturally" and must not exceed 0.1 percent of any food.

A range of restaurant heavyweights list it in their ingredient lists, including McDonald's, Subway, Starbucks, Burger King, Yum Brands' Taco Bell, Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's. The preservative is also found in a number of household items, including baby wipes and shampoos (where it's used as an antimicrobial agent).

Panera's decision highlights a trend in the industry toward natural items in food. It's important to note that the ingredients Panera is getting rid of are safe, said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

Earlier this year, Subway, the world's largest restaurant by locations, made waves with its decision to phase out azodicarbonamide, dubbed the "yoga-mat chemical" by food blogger Vani Hari because it's also used for foamed plastic production.

In response to a question regarding whether Subway plans to remove any more additives, a Subway representative said, "We're always improving and evolving our menu and the changes we made to our bread recipe demonstrates our commitment to offering customers fresh, high-quality and delicious choices."

"Panera's announcement is another example that consumer awareness and action is changing the food industry.

Hari cheered Panera's plan.

"Panera's announcement is another example that consumer awareness and action is changing the food industry. … I appreciate Panera's commitment to remove artificial ingredients and hope other major restaurant chains take notice to do the same," she wrote in an email.

Starbucks Overhaul

Meanwhile, coffee giant Starbucks is in the midst of a multi-year food overhaul. Its road to simplification started in 2007 when it pledged to remove artificial trans fats from its food. Two years later, it said it would get rid of artificial flavors, dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners from food and remove artificial preservatives where feasible.

Its 2012 purchase of La Boulange Bakery accelerated this transition.

"You've probably noticed we've since transformed the bakery case to include ... wholesome ingredients ... available at more than 6,000 U.S. company-operated stores and another 2,500 licensed stores," said company spokeswoman Holly Hart Shafer.

For Chipotle, tortillas stands between the Mexican chain and eliminating preservatives.

"Only the tortillas have preservatives. Right now, our focus there is eliminating GMO ingredients, which we hope to finish by the end of this year," said Chris Arnold, Chipotle's communications director.

On its nutrition page, Chipotle said it is working with its suppliers to eventually eliminate artificial preservatives from its tortillas.

McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb said the fast-food giant's chefs work closely with suppliers to continue to evolve its menu and serve customers quality, safe good.

"All of our ingredients are commonly used by the food industry and meet recognized food quality and safety standards in the U.S." she said. "We will continue to listen to our customers and evolve our menu to meet their changing needs."

In a nod to menu transparency, McDonald's also recently revamped its website to address common questions about its food and stress that its ingredients meet "recognized food quality and safety standards."

Burger King said it did not have any news to share regarding its ingredients.

In an email, Michelle King, Dunkin' Brands' senior director of global public relations, said Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins use high-quality ingredients that have been FDA approved and comply with the company's "stringent" quality and food safety standards.

"We review our ingredients on an ongoing basis and optimize our formulas based on current market trends and regulatory activity," she added.

Wendy's and Taco Bell did not respond to CNBC's emails for comment.