Chipotle founder and CEO slams McDonald's for McNugget claims as he boasts about his 'clean' menu (CMG, MCD, PNRA)

Chipotle's CEO and founder Steve Ells says chains like McDonald's and Panera Bread are misleading customers with "clean" food claims.

On Tuesday, the burrito chain announced that it was the first and only national restaurant brand with no added colors, flavors, or preservatives of any kind on the menu.

The news comes at a time when clean food has become an industry trend. Seemingly every fast-food chain in America has made a "clean" food announcement in recent months, from Taco Bell cutting artificial ingredients to McDonald's unveiling a "clean" McNugget.

Now, Ells is ready to set the record straight.

"[McDonald's] doesn't have a clean chicken nugget!" Ells told Business Insider. "Because they still have industrial ingredients... It's not something you buy at the farmer's market — 'oh yes, where's the natural flavor?'"

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Ells argues that most chains — including McDonald's — ditching artificial flavors simply swapped the offending ingredients for "natural flavors" that serve the same purpose. Most of these natural flavors are created in a lab. The only difference is that they use extracts from natural instead of artificial ingredients.

McDonald's spokesperson Becca Hary told Business Insider that the company is continuing to "raise the bar" in how food is prepared, sourced, and served.

"Removing high fructose corn syrup from our buns, serving chicken free of antibiotics important to human medicine, and removing artificial preservatives from our Chicken McNuggets are clear and tangible quality improvements of which we are proud," Hary said.


It's not only traditional fast-food chains that continue to use natural flavors. Panera Bread, for example, announced in January that it had completed its mission to make its menu 100% "clean," but continues to use natural flavors in its food.

"The biggest difference [between Chipotle and Panera] is we don't have any of these industrial additives of any kind," said Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle's chief marketing officer.

"If you look at other fast-food menus, they might have been successful in removing things that are labeled artificial flavors or artificial colors, or even artificial preservatives, but they have to end up replacing them with something else which performs essentially the same function," Crumpacker continued. "So, these menus are still littered with colors, flavors, preservatives, dough conditioners, gums, emulsifiers, humectants. All those things are still on the menu —"

"Kate, did he just say humectants?" Ells interrupted. "Do you know what a humectants is?"

I did not — proving Ells' point. Ells doesn't want anything on Chipotle's menu that customers can't immediately identify as something they could pick up themselves as the supermarket (Humectants are ingredients added to maintain foods' textures.)

Panera Bread told Business Insider that it is currently working to use more "whole" ingredients instead of natural flavors. However, since the chain has a more extensive menu than Chipotle, progress takes time.

"We're continuing to strive to use ingredients that you would find in your own home pantry," Sara Burnett, Panera's director of wellness and food policy, told Business Insider. "We're continuing to move on that journey. And, natural flavors are one of those ingredients that, when we have a good alternative, we prefer to use a whole ingredient."

The final step in Chipotle's long-term mission to ditch additives and preservatives was adjusting the recipe for the tortilla, a mission the company has been working on for two years. The new flour tortillas contain just five ingredients, while the corn tortillas (used to make chips) are made with only corn masa flour and water.

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