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How ‘natural’ is Pret?

‘Natural’ sandwich chain Pret a Manger accused of serving ‘a cocktail of artificial additives'
Pret a Manger

Despite Pret a Manger’s claim to ‘shun obscure chemicals’, the Real Bread Campaign has discovered that this ‘natural’ sandwich chain is serving its unsuspecting customers a cocktail of artificial additives, including diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono-and diglycerides (E472e) and l-cysteine hydrochloride (E920).

After nearly a year and a half of correspondence with Pret’s CEO, Clive Schlee, the Campaign believes that the company ‘has no intention of resolving this apparent discrepancy’ by either removing all artificial additives from its products or declaring them on product/shelf labelling and removing the natural and anti-additive claims from its marketing.

Pret: ‘No label is good’

From social media to etched wooden boards in store, through sandwich cartons to napkins and window displays, Pret repeatedly makes claims such as ‘we shun the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food’.

Elsewhere, Pret appears to imply that the absence of ingredient labelling is because its own sandwiches are additive-free, saying that ‘factory produced long-life sandwiches are plastered with labels containing lots of boring numbers, names, dates and symbols. No label is good. Pret sandwiches etc are fresh. They have no labels’. The company even goes as far as to state ‘Now you know how to spot the difference.’

Unnecessary additives

Even though the company insists that ‘avoiding preservatives and obscure chemicals is sacred to Pret’, the reality is that it does use them.

In May 2015, an email from the company’s customer services department, in response to a query from the Campaign, revealed that ‘malted wholemeal’ loaf it uses has 15 listed ingredients and unnecessary additives.

Across Pret’s range, the artificial additives used in baked products include: E920 (l-cysteine hydrochloride) E472e (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides), E471 (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), E422 (glycerol), E330 (citric acid) and E300 (ascorbic acid).

None of these appears on product packaging, labels or point of sale signs. The Campaign then began corresponding with Schlee, encouraging the company to become a Real Bread leader by going additive-free in line with its claimed ethos.

What is ‘natural’?

The Food Standards Agency criteria for the use of the word notes that ‘Natural’ essentially means that the product comprises natural ingredients, meaning ingredients produced by Nature that are not the work of man or interfered with by man.

It is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings that are the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.

As Pret acknowledges: ‘nowadays scientists make mass-produced food last longer, look nicer and have improved ‘mouth-feel’. This alchemy often appears on packaging as E numbers and long unpronounceable chemical names. Basically, it helps make money along the way. The damage these additives do to our bodies is the source of tremendous debate and research.’

Too large to list

In the May 2015 email, Pret admitted that ‘the number of included ingredients is so large, that to provide comprehensive ingredient advice in this way would be impossible.’

Even assuming that this, and the protest that ‘we don’t label our sandwiches due to the volumes we make’, is true, clearly there is plenty of space available at point of sale, but the chain chooses instead to display ‘labels that describe the flavours in each sandwich.’

’Loaf-tanning salons’

Another pillar of Pret’s marketing is ‘freshness’. This includes highlighting that some of its ‘shops have a wonderful baker’s oven (indeed, some have two). We bake our baguettes throughout the day, the fresher the better.’

However, not one of the company’s outlets uses its ‘big, fancy baker’s oven’ to make ‘baguettes, pastries, croissants and savouries in house every day’ from scratch.

While insisting that ‘we don’t sell ‘factory’ stuff’, Pret in fact use its ovens merely as what the Campaign calls ‘loaf-tanning salons’ to bake off mass-produced items pre-made elsewhere at some point in the past.

In October 2016, Schlee wrote that the company had declined to switch to using a Real Bread bakery as ‘their prices were two to three times our current price and moving would cost Pret several million pounds’.

He claimed that they were ‘making progress in moving to cleaner bread’ but it was not clear whether additives would be removed or replaced by so-called ‘clean label’ (i.e. undeclared) processing aids.

As of December 2016, Pret’s ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ marketing messages were still in use.

‘Come clean’

Since its launch in November 2008, a key element of the Real Bread Campaign’s mission has been to bring about change that gives more people the chance to choose additive-free loaves.

A mainstay of this is calling for changes in governmental policy (an ‘Honest Crust Act’) and commercial practice, which will result in more honest and transparent labelling and marketing to help people to make better-informed loaf and sandwich buying choices.

‘We urge Pret a Manger to come clean, first by displaying lists of all ingredients, including additives, on packaging or at point of sale and bringing its marketing messages in line with its practices. No artificial additive is necessary to make bread and ultimately we would like to see Pret, and all other sandwich sellers, removing all artificial additives.’

Real Bread Campaign coordinator

The number ingredients technically necessary to make bread are two: flour and water, from which flatbread can be made. If left to ferment it will produce sourdough.

In practice, salt is added almost universally and, in the UK, loaves are currently more commonly leavened with commercial yeast rather than sourdough starter culture.

Click here to view a list of ingredients and artificial addtives in Pret loaves, baguettes and wraps.

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