Subway has long urged its customers to “Eat Fresh.” Now it wants them to eat natural.
The Milford, Conn.-based sandwich operator will remove artificial ingredients from many of its menu items, the company said Thursday, becoming the latest in a wave of quick-service chains taking the natural route amid intense competition from fast-casual competitors.
The chain recently introduced a new roast beef recipe, roasted with garlic and pepper, at its more than 27,000 U.S. restaurants. It also plans to remove artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from its sandwiches, soups and cookies over the next 18 months.
“We are making our products taste even more delicious,” said Elizabeth Stewart, Subway director of corporate social responsibility. “We’re looking at all options available to us to do that.”
Numerous chains have recently said they would shift to using more natural products, including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Noodles & Company. But Stewart said Subway’s efforts have been going on for years, and isn’t a response to current trends.
“This is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” she said. “It was part of our DNA from the get go, from the first open kitchen where folks could see the fresh ingredients and pick and choose what they want on their sandwich.”
Last year, Subway increased whole grains and removed caramel coloring in its nine-grain wheat bread. It also introduced premium-cut white meat chicken strips made with no artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. And it removed azodicarbonamide, a food additive commonly used in baking.
In 2013, Subway added fresh spinach to the menu, and in 2012 it made its white bread vegan and introduced chopped salads. The company is currently working on recipes for the rest of its meat products, and is also updating its salad dressings and cookies. The chain stopped using high fructose corn syrup last year.
“This is an iterative process,” Stewart said. “We’re working constantly to improve our ingredients for sandwiches and salads.”
Subway removed caramel coloring from steak and pastrami this year. The chain will replace artificial colors used in its banana peppers and pickles with turmeric.
Additionally, the roast beef will be more rare, because Subway has found that its customers prefer rare roast beef. But whether the roast beef at your local Subway is rare depends on where you live. The company will base which Subways serve rare roast beef on local preferences, Stewart said.
Such efforts are especially important considering Subway’s reputation. The chain is known for preparing food in front of customers, making it the first major chain to do so. It also earned a healthful reputation with its marketing campaign centered around spokesperson Jared Fogle, who says he lost weight partly by eating the chain’s food.
“It’s really important to us that we provide great tasting food,” Stewart said. “We’re always working on how to make our food taste better and provide the options customers are looking for.”
Making the changes isn’t easy. Subway is the largest restaurant chain in the world in terms of unit count, and changing recipes for products involves many different people and considerable testing.
“You can’t just flip a switch and make product changes,” Stewart said.
Still, one challenge with such changes is the supply. Given its size, getting enough supplies of products that don’t have artificial colors and flavors can be difficult.
“Our suppliers have been really, really helpful in this initiative,” Stewart said. “It’s been really challenging. Some are easy to do. Others are more challenging. They have been real partners for us. Some of the challenges require continued work with the suppliers. But we’re confident we’ll find them.”