Food companies understand that Americans are increasingly interested in buying food that actually seems worth eating. We want food that's some degree of fresh, healthy, natural or otherwise of higher quality. It's for this reason that you see images of plump fruit decorating packages of cereal bars and the greenest broccoli you've ever laid eyes upon appearing on boxes of frozen dinners. At Burger King, you don't order a mere salad – it's a Chicken Caesar Garden Fresh Salad. Those chips aren't just cheese-flavored – they're Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips, with "harvest cheddar" an entirely meaningless term.
Few companies have applied this appeal more literally than Papa John's, which for years has boasted "Better pizza. Better ingredients." Printed on every Papa John's pizza box is a little story: "When I founded Papa John's in 1984, my mission was to build a better pizza," says "Papa" John Schnatter. "I went the extra mile to ensure we used the highest quality ingredients available – like fresh, never frozen original dough, all-natural sauce, veggies sliced fresh daily and 100 percent real beef and pork. We think you'll taste the difference."
[Read: The Myth of Healthy Processed Food.]
After all, who wouldn't want fresher, better ingredients in their pizza? A great deal of the food we currently eat, both from the supermarket and at chain restaurants, is comprised of ingredients created as cheaply as possible (tomatoes chosen for their shipability, not flavor; chicken as bland as a pizza box because the bird only lived for 10 weeks and ate a monotonous diet) and highly processed additives, many of them not even technically edible.
So you'd think if Papa John's was really following a different model, they'd want to tell us all about it. Too bad they don't. Those "better ingredients": Good luck finding out what they are. Unlike the packaged products you buy at the supermarket, restaurant food isn't required to list ingredients. Many fast food chains, like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Subway, do voluntarily provide them, in part for indemnity against lawsuits and in part because they realize some of their customers actually want to know what they're eating.
But not Papa John's. They've decided it's better to keep their ingredients a secret. You won't find complete information about them on either the company's website or in stores. Charlie, the friendly and accommodating employee who took my order for a small cheese pizza at my local Papa John's in Boulder, Colo., told me that he didn't know what the pizza ingredients were. "I think they're listed on the website," he said, making a reasonable assumption.
When I called Papa John's customer toll free number, I was told that for "additional information on allergen or nutritional info" I should leave a message with Connie Childs, who would return my call the next business day. I left two messages, but Connie never called. Public relations wasn't much help either. My emails and voicemails went unanswered. Only Charlie offered a few thoughts about what exactly makes Papa John's pizza "better."
"We get deliveries in every three days, so nothing that's in the fridge is more than a few days old. And we form the dough here. It doesn't come ready to go, though it is made in a central facility and then frozen," he said, offering a slightly different version of the story than what's printed on the pizza boxes.
Maybe Papa John's doesn't use chemical dough conditioners in their pizza dough, corn syrup or sugar in the sauce, or preservatives in the meat toppings. Maybe they go the extra mile to make a high-quality pizza that's as close to homemade as possible. Although the fact that Papa John's garlic sauce, which comes in little packages, is made with a slew of additives – mono and diglycerides, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and the preservatives sodium benzoate and calcium disodium EDTA – does not inspire confidence.
By not disclosing what's in its food, Papa John's is revealing that it doesn't think too much of its customers. It is either asking customers for blind trust or assuming people are too stupid and complacent to ask questions. When we do ask questions, they refuse to answer. At least that was my experience, both when I approached Papa John's as a journalist and a customer. This strikes me as a foolish approach in an age when American eaters are demanding more transparency (see GMO labeling) when it comes to food, not less. For some reason, Papa John's has failed to realize that when you hoist your entire brand up on the idea of high-quality food, you'd better be able to back it up.
While Papa John's is the most egregious example of this marketing mendacity, they're hardly alone. Olive Garden wants you to believe that eating at one of their restaurants means you're getting authentic Italian cuisine. Many of its "chefs" have been trained at the company's Culinary Institute of Tuscany, located, we are told, in a "quaint 11th century Tuscan village." But Italian cuisine is notoriously fresh, individually prepared and lacking in shortcuts. Are Olive Garden's offerings anything close to this? They, too, won't tell you. The allergen chart on the website, though, reveals that there's soy in the meat sauce and chicken parm, suggesting that Olive Garden's specialties are closer to Chef Boyardee than something Benedetta Vitali came up with. Applebee's, Cheesecake Factory, Chili's and TGIF's are some of the other sit-down chains that also won't tell you what's in their food.
Given how dramatically food production has changed in the last half century, Americans deserve to know what they're eating. That's the impetus behind the growing public support for the labeling of GMOs. Even those who are OK with eating genetically modified corn or soy still would like to know about it.
Chipotle has done a great job with this sort of transparency. The company details its policy against buying meat raised with antibiotics, arsenic and growth hormones, and it's been open about its attempts to source locally-grown food. In other words, they don't just say "better ingredients" and leave it at that. They also publish their ingredients, so that customers can decide for themselves whether Chipotle really sells "food with integrity." Anything less would be nothing more than marketing hype.
[Read: 7 Marketing Claims That Took Heat.]
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Melanie Warner is a freelance journalist who writes about the food industry. Her book on processed food, Pandora's Lunchbox, was published by Scribner in February 2013. She has worked as a reporter for the New York Times, a senior writer at Fortune magazine, and a blogger for CBSNews.com. Melanie lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and their two boys. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.
Clarified on 08/15/2013: A previous version of this blog post did not make it clear that Papa John's does provide some information about its ingredients on its web site. Among other things, the web site states that Papa John's does not use fillers in its meat.