It's officially a movement, trend and anything else you want to call it, short of government requirement: Food companies are dropping artificial ingredients by the truckload. Right after Taco Bell and Pizza Hut announced they would nix artificial ingredients, Subway is now joining the list of the latest of food companies doing away with artificial ingredients, and bidding farewell to things like Yellow Dye No. 5.
Subway announced on June 4 that it will remove artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its menu in North America by 2017. With the sandwich chain's sluggish sales, it's anyone's guess whether the move will help Subway refresh its "Eat Fresh" appeal and keep pace with changing consumer preferences for less processed, healthier foods.
Elizabeth Stewart, director of corporate social responsibility at Milford, Conn.-based Subway, reported that the privately held company has been focusing on ongoing ingredient improvement for some time. The chain has also been working on eliminating caramel color from cold cuts like roast beef and ham, she says, and plans to replace a preservative in turkey called proprionic acid with vinegar by the end of this year. Subway will also replace the artificial dye Yellow No. 5, and instead color its banana peppers with turmeric. And Stewart stated that the chain is working on its sauces and cookies.
Considered the country's (and perhaps the world's) most ubiquitous sandwich chain of fast-food restaurants providing food at reasonable prices, Subway is known for its marketing its subs as a healthier option than hamburgers and pizza. Subway rose through the ranks to become the world's largest restaurant brand in terms of locations through its Eat Fresh and weight loss spokesman Jared Fogle.
But this is a difficult time for Five-Dollar Footlongs. Subway has suffered losses to other fast-food rivals offering outwardly fresher, better-for-you meals. And last year, its U.S. sales plunged 3 percent, or $400 million, falling faster than any other of the country's top 25 food chains. This pushed it down to the third best-selling food chain in the U.S. for the first time in seven years, according to a Washington Post report.
Subway's ditch of artificial ingredients may not have come fast enough, considering how quickly the major food companies are disposing of artificial ingredients lately, as pressure from consumers and smaller players claiming more wholesome products. The so-called "Big Food" makers including McDonald's, Kraft and Nestle already have stated in recent months that they're expelling artificial ingredients from one or more products.
Subway says it's regarded as a restaurant with low-fat options, but that it needs to keep up with changing customer attitudes and meet those expectations.
Subway must face evolving definitions for what qualifies as healthy head-on, says Darren Tristano, an analyst for Technomic. Subway markets itself as a fresher option, yet Tristano indicates that people don't necessarily see it as the healthiest or best product around. While older generations look at nutritional stats like fat and calories, younger generations are more concerned with benefits like "local," ''organic" and "natural," Tristano points out. "Change has come so fast and rapidly, and consumers are just expecting more and more," he says.
Simpler ingredients are the key, Subway. Start using them and the freshest meats possible, as soon as possible.