By Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
Get takeout food hygiene tips to lower coronavirus risk! Also find out more about the other side of Panda Express that most people aren’t aware of. The restaurant’s American Chinese food menu is offering more sustainable and nutritious fast food.
For the last year, I’ve been working on a dream project—and sometimes, I have to pinch myself that my job is real! I had to keep things hush hush for quite a while, but I’m finally able to share the big news with you.
Read on to find out about the big reveal that just happens to involve one of my favorite fast-casual restaurants!
And by the way, yes, it is absolutely safe (with a few precautions, which I’ll get into soon) to order takeout right now during the current COVID-19 crisis.
Thanks to the folks at Panda Express for sponsoring this post! All opinions are my own, as always.
You might have felt the suspense these last few paragraphs, so here’s the intel! I’ve partnered with Panda Express to make some truly revolutionary menu changes, called the Panda Promise™.
I feel so honored that I had a rather big hand in helping Panda put the project into place. Like I said, this is a dream project for a registered dietitian nutritionist like me! Ready to hear more?
By the way, all these photos were taken before the coronavirus pandemic hit, at a Panda Express near me (in North Bergen, NJ).
As most Panda Express restaurants are currently open for take-out only, I’m providing tips below on how to safely procure and eat restaurant food. I recommend contacting your local restaurant to determine current store hours.
What is the Panda Promise™?
It’s new to Panda Express and is a menu elevation on every level. Not only is the menu being altered so it contains more nutritious Chinese food options (read on for those details), the restaurant is truly committing to being transparent and better on every level.
To accomplish this, Panda Express analyzed market research and conducted focus groups and surveys of what its customers wanted and valued the most. I worked closely with Panda’s food science team to understand these wants and needs.
Then I put together a giant research report (it was 72 pages long!) of my recommendations of what and how to focus on—and I presented this to Panda’s internal team.
The Panda Promise is focusing on several changes throughout the next five years. They are:
Sodium Reduction at Panda Express
Here’s huge news: Panda Express has been gradually making changes to reduce the sodium content of its menu items and will continue to do so until 2025.
Because more than 70% of sodium in the American diet comes from eating restaurant and packaged foods, per the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, (FDA), this is a really big deal.
While the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, most Americans take in well beyond this amount—we’re talking about 3,400 milligrams daily.
Thus far, sodium reductions have been made in seven entrees and sides—and go all the way up more than 50%! In one of my favorite menu items, Super Greens, the amount of sodium was reduced by more than 50%.
And in the Broccoli Beef dish, a sodium reduction of 20% has been made. Because flavor and dish integrity are as important to Panda as nutrition, the team is being super careful to make changes that preserve what customers love about those dishes.
Sugar Reduction at Panda Express
As you read this, the chefs and product development team at Panda Express are working hard to reduce sugar levels in the restaurant’s recipes. And guess what else? Panda’s core menu will be completely free of high-fructose corn syrup by 2021.
Panda is really listening to what its customers desire. In an International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, 80% of consumers said they are trying to limit and/or avoid added sugars.
And in a Wakefield Research survey, 57% of adults ages 65 and older, 47% of adults ages 55 to 64, 44% of adults ages 45 to 54, 38% of adults ages 35 to 44, and 34% of adults ages 18 to 34 said that seeing a product labeled “no high-fructose corn syrup” would motivate them to purchase it.
Plus, sugar reductions will help Americans to be healthier. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of calories per day be consumed from added sugars.
Per a 2,000-calorie daily diet, this comes out to no more than 200 calories from added sugar—or 52.5 grams, about 13 teaspoons of table sugar.
Americans are consuming more than the recommended intake of added sugar: In 2005 to 2010, adults took in an average of 13% of total daily calories from added sugar, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
Elimination of Artificial Flavors and Artificial Colors
By 2025, all of the entrees, sides, and appetizers at Panda Express will be free of artificial food coloring and flavors.
I’m so excited about these changes.
I’ll tell you what: The restaurant chain is so awesome that in its promise to remove artificial colors, it’s removing caramel color, too. I can’t say for sure that this is 100% because of my recommendations, but I like to think I had something to do with the change!
Caramel color is one of those ingredients that’s in a bit of limbo in regard to what people and experts think of it. While the FDA considers it an exempt color and groups it with natural pigments such as dehydrated beets, potential ingredients in caramel color may have negative health implications.
And these moves to remove artificial colors and flavors are ones that consumers really want. In an IFIC survey, nearly 80% of consumers said they’re trying to limit and/or avoid added sugars—and 62% said would pay up to 10% more for a product that’s free of artificial ingredients.
Better Ingredients = More Sustainable Fast Food
I love the taste of fresh veggies, and I always tell my clients to keep their fridges stocked with fresh produce. And
guess what? Just because food is fast doesn’t mean it isn’t fresh. All the entrees that you love at Panda Express are made with fresh, hand-chopped veggies.
There are so many veggies in these menu items, in fact, that they significantly contribute to your daily servings of vegetables. Plus, the Panda Express culinary team is always innovating and working on adding even more vegetables to its dishes.
You’ll also find sustainable fast-food items at Panda Express—including eggs and poultry. The restaurant first introduced chicken raised-without-antibiotics in 2019 in its limited-time offering.
And this year, Panda introduced cage-free eggs. All California locations have already transitioned
to cage-free eggs, and other states will have cage-free menu items in the next five
Consumers feel very passionately about sustainability and eating sustainable fast food. In a 2018 Animals
survey, 84% of respondents said it was somewhat or very important to them that farms raise animals with shelter, resting areas, and sufficient space.
Safely Order Takeout Food to Lower Coronavirus Risk
During the coronavirus pandemic, you may be curious about whether it’s safe to order restaurant takeout or delivery—and if you’ll have a higher risk of catching the virus if you cook all your meals at home.
The good news: You can go ahead and order takeout! The CDC states there is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission via food.
Minimize Human-to-Human Contact
Do anything and everything you can to minimize contact with anyone who’s not on your personal quarantine team. So this means the cashier, delivery person, etc.
Panda Express is a great example of a restaurant that’s working to help you achieve this. You can place an order through either the website or app so you don’t have to pay in person.
And when you pick up your food, you’ll find contactless pickup and plexiglass barriers to minimize exposure—as well as tamper-evident bag and pail seals to protect your food.
If you’re ordering from a restaurant that doesn’t have these precautions in place, I suggest calling ahead to pay and request that your food be left on the counter in the restaurant so you don’t have to interact with anyone to pick it up. No matter what, stay at least 6 feet away from anyone else at all times.
Give Delivery Instructions
If you’re ordering delivery, either tip ahead on a credit card or leave a cash tip in an envelope by your front door. Request contactless delivery to allow your driver to leave your food at your door so you don’t have to interact with anyone.
By the way, you can have Panda Express delivered through the restaurant’s online ordering.
Practice Good Food Hygiene to Lower Coronavirus Risk
Precautions don’t stop once you’ve picked up or received your restaurant order. Make sure you employ these food safety measures, too.
Wash Your Hands
Before you handle your food, the CDC suggests washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds—instead of counting, you can sing the “happy birthday” song twice. It’s a good idea to also give your hands a wash before you eat your food.
Re-Plate Your Food
When you get your food home, you should do a couple of things to make it as safe as possible to eat. Even if a restaurant has protective policies in place, such as workers wearing masks and gloves like Panda associates do, it can’t hurt to go an extra step.
The main reason: A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus can stay on surfaces such as plastic and cardboard for hours—and as long as days—after exposure.
So, remove the food containers from their bags, and throw away those bags. Re-plate the food microwave-safe plates, then heat it up. This will help to kill any germs that may be on the food. Discard the original food containers and use your own utensils.
This procedure is based on items ordered—meaning it’s safer to order food that can be heated than food that needs to be served cold, such as salad or sushi.
Disinfect Any Surfaces
Give any counters or other spaces that packaging material was placed on a run-down with sanitizer. Then wash your hands once more before you eat.
What to Order at Your Nearest Panda Express
Nearly a decade ago, Panda debuted low-calorie and protein-filled offerings—which is groundbreaking for the restaurant industry. Today, more than half of Panda Express' entrees have at least 8 grams of protein and 300 calories or less.
Examples include Black Pepper Angus Steak (Panda Express’ newest menu option), Firecacker Shrimp (you have until June to try it!), and the Grilled Teriyaki Chicken entree.
You’ll find plant-based options on the Panda Express menu, too. Although I just recently started eating seafood, I was a strict vegetarian for 19 years—so having plant-based options is super important to me.
So, what’s the best Panda Express entrée for plant-based eaters? When my vegetarian or vegan clients ask me what to order at Panda, I tell them about the Eggplant Tofu—and suggest pairing it with the Super Greens side.
The Eggplant Tofu is a mixture of tofu, eggplant, and red bell peppers. A 6.1-ounce portion contains 340 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fiber.
The Super Greens is literally just vegetables—and I love it (as you can see from the photos above)! It’s a combo of broccoli, kale, and cabbage is just like it sounds: It's a medley of green veggies that are super for you! In just 90 calories, you get an excellent amount of fiber (5 grams) and a good amount of protein (6 grams).
These are both nutrients that help keep you fuller for longer. One note is that if you are vegetarian or vegan with
particular restrictions, all menu items are cooked in shared woks, so there is some cross contamination.
There are so many options for Panda Express meals. For meat eaters (like my fiancé!), great options include the String Bean Chicken Breast (190 calories, 14 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber per 5.6-ounce serving) or the Broccoli Beef (150 calories, 9 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fiber, per 5.4-ounce serving).
You can also try one of the restaurant’s newest dishes, Black Pepper Angus Steak (180 calories, 19 grams of protein, and
1 gram of fiber, per 5.1-ounce serving). I could go on and on!
Right now, while the United States is under coronavirus quarantine measures, you can score some pretty sweet deals at Panda Express to feed your entire family. Beginning May 1, you can order a $20 Family Meal, which includes two large sides and three large entrees for a limited time.
One of my fave things about Panda Express, too, is that you can totally exercise portion control. If you’re like me, you’ll end up with leftovers every time you order!
- Panda Express Announces New Brand Commitments To Continue Menu Elevation Journey, PRNewsire.com
- Sodium in Your Diet, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
- 2019 Food & Health Survey,International Food Information Council (IFIC)
- New Survey from Label Insight Reveals Which Loosely-Regulated Marketing Claims Motivate Shoppers to Buy,
- Wakefield Research
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Know Your Limit for Added Sugars, U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)
- Are They Buying It? United States Consumers’ Changing Attitudes toward More Humanely Raised Meat, Eggs, and Dairy, Animals
- Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1, The New England Journal of Medicine
I’d love to hear from you! Let me know what you think about the new Panda Express changes. Are you looking for more nutritious Chinese food? What are your thoughts on takeout food hygiene to reduce coronavirus risk, as well as food storage tips to lower chances of foodborne illness?
What are your favorite fast food restaurant dishes? Do you enjoy mushroom chicken, orange chicken, kung pao chicken, fried rice, Beijing beef, black pepper chicken, chow mein, honey walnut shrimp, cream cheese rangoon, or other dishes?