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Subway Will Drop Artificial Ingredients by 2017

The announcement follows similar news from Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Nestle earlier this year.

Dominik Schwind/Flickr

Subway, the fast food chain known for promoting a healthy lifestyle, announced this morning that it would eliminate the use of all artificial ingredients in its food by 2017. The AP confirms that the restaurant chain "will remove artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its menu in North America."

Subway's announcement follows similar news from Yum! Brands' Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. The two companies announced they would cut use of artificial ingredients by the end of this year. Taco Bell's CEO Brian Niccol told Nation's Restaurant News last week, "[Consumers are] telling us less is más when it comes to ingredients." In February, Nestle announced it would halt use of artificial flavorings and colors by the end of 2015 as well.

The move will take Subway — which is a privately held company and does not disclose sales figures — some time as they must reconfigure many of their recipes. Subway's director of corporate social responsibility Elizabeth Stewart told the AP "ingredient improvement has been an ongoing process over the years."

According to a release, Subway will introduce a new garlic and pepper roast beef recipe to each of its over 27,000 U.S. restaurants. In January, the company released a new "cleaner label" grilled chicken. Subway says it will not be raising its prices: "it is important to [the company] that food stays affordable for customers."

Though the FDA has never defined the difference between "natural" and "artificial" ingredients, Subway is taking steps to remove additives that are chemically derived and replace them with familiar ingredients. For example, Subway's turkey cold cuts are preserved in proprionic acid, an inhibitor of bacterial growth. Though proprionic acid is "a naturally occurring" acid, and is produced by the human body, repeated exposure at high levels can be harmful. Subway will replace the proprionic acid it uses with vinegar.

Subway is also working to remove caramel coloring from its ham and roast beef. Though caramel coloring is one of the oldest and most common food additives, some states regulate it as it may "cause cancer or reproductive" issues.

Last year, Subway came under fire when a chemical used in yoga mats was found among the ingredients in its bread dough. The chain swiftly revised its bread recipe.

Today's news is an interesting move for Subway, which has long marketed itself as a healthier option among fast food chains, and is well-known for its "eat fresh" campaign. Subway has stayed somewhat ahead of nutritional concerns in the past: The company eliminated trans fats from its menu in 2008 and removed high fructose corn syrup in 2014. The AP notes that changing attitudes about what is healthy have evolved, and food companies are finally taking note.

While Americans used to count calories, they're now more likely to want to know where their food comes from and what exactly its made from, thanks to a seismic shift in thoughts about what is healthy and what consumption means for the body and the planet. American media — in the form of books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and films like Fast Food Nationhas supported and spurred an increased curiosity about human food consumption. Companies like Chipotle and sweetgreen have demonstrated increased profitability by paying attention to this new thinking. But can established brands like Subway, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut turn around their downtrending sales by changing up a few ingredients? We'll have our answer sometime within the next decade.