by Darren Tristano

Source: Mike Mozart

Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread for years have led the fast-casual restaurant segment, and their moves away from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and toward more natural ingredients are likely to remake and influence the industry once again.

Ask the leaders of most new restaurant brands with aspirations of rapid growth how they describe themselves, and they’ll invariably call themselves the “Chipotle of” their specialty. While many have adopted Chipotle’s build-your-own menu and service style, the burrito chain has proved much harder to emulate in terms of its meteoric expansion across the country. Now its “Food with Integrity” positioning will be even harder to replicate as well—for both Chipotle and its competitors.

Last week, Chipotle made major news again by setting a new benchmark for quality-focused restaurants to target: the elimination of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, from the food it sells. Panera also has been at the forefront of this movement toward “cleaner” labels, pledging years ago to serve chicken that had not been treated with antibiotics. This month, the bakery-café chain will reintroduce its salad dressings free of artificial coloring, preservatives, flavors or sweeteners.

These initiatives are in keeping with consumers’ rising demand for food they classify as healthful, not just in the sense of calorie counts but also of “natural” foods with “clean” labels that make customers feel good about what they’re eating. Nearly two in three consumers (65 percent) agree that food or beverages described as GMO-free are slightly or much more healthy than typical foods, according to Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report. That percentage was even higher for other “clean-eating” descriptors like natural or preservative-, antibiotic- or hormone-free.

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