Subway joins companies dropping artificial ingredients

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The sandwich chain known for its marketing itself as a fresher alternative to hamburger chains told The Associated Press it will remove artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its menu in North America by 2017. Whether that can help Subway keep up with changing attitudes about what qualifies as healthy remains to be seen.

Elizabeth Stewart, Subway's director of corporate social responsibility, said in an interview that ingredient improvement has been an ongoing process over the years. More recently, she said the chain has been working on removing caramel color from cold cuts like roast beef and ham. For its turkey, Subway says it plans to replace a preservative called proprionic acid with vinegar by the end of this year.

Among its toppings, Stewart said Subway is switching to banana peppers colored with turmeric instead of the artificial dye Yellow No. 5. Without providing details, she said the chain is also working on its sauces and cookies.

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Subway joins companies dropping artificial ingredients
Amin Chakma puts up new menus featuring calorie counts at a Subway restaurant, Friday, June 29, 2007, in New York. New York is the first city in the country to require certain fast food restaurants to list calorie counts next to menu items in type that is at least as large as the price. New York City ushered in a new era of healthy eating on Sunday July 1, 2007 as a ban on trans fat-laden cooking oils in restaurants took effect. But not all fast-food eateries were following another new rule requiring them to post calorie counts on their menus. (AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh)
Liverpool FC Striker Daniel Sturridge prepares a sandwich for a fan at a SUBWAY� Restaurant on Friday, July 25, 2014 in Boston. (Photo by Gil Talbot/Invision for Subway/AP Images)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SUBWAY - SUBWAY Global Ambassador Pelé, (right), the greatest footballer of all time, holds up his favourite SUBWAY tuna sandwich as Liverpool FC legend Robbie Fowler (left) looks on, at a SUBWAY Restaurant in London, Friday, March 20, 2015, prior to the Liverpool FC v. Manchester United football match. SUBWAY Restaurants is the Official Training Food Partner of Liverpool FC. (Photo by Mark Allan/Invision for SUBWAY Restaurants/AP Images)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SUBWAY - Marcus Mariota, 2015 draft prospect and newest SUBWAY Famous Fan, poses with a life-size food statue made of SUBWAY sandwich ingredients in his likeness, including new SUBWAY guacamole, and a custom jersey with his signature number 8, on Wednesday, April 22, 2015, in Honolulu. Mariota joins a roster of SUBWAY Famous Fans including Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Russell Westbrook, Robert Griffin III, Justin Tuck, Nastia Liukin and Pelé. (Photo by Marco Garcia /Invision for SUBWAY/AP Images)
2014 draft prospect Anthony Barr poses for a picture with a food sculpture of himself at a Subway restaurant in New York, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Former U.S. Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps, right, and Brazilian soccer legend Pele prepares sandwiches at a SUBWAY restaurant, during a event organized by SUBWAY, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Nelson Antoine/Invision for SUBWAY Restaurants/AP Images)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SUBWAY - Linebacker Jarvis Jones, 2013 draft prospect and newest Famous Fan of SUBWAY, admires his hair on the life-size "Smokehouse BBQ Chicken" sculpture to announce Jones' official SUBWAY Famous Fan title, Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in New York. The sculpture is an artistic representation of the football star from the chest up, standing approximately three feet tall and made of almost entirely SUBWAY Smokehouse BBQ Chicken. Jarvis joins a roster of fellow Famous Fans that include Robert Griffin III, Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, Blake Griffin and Michael Phelps.† (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for SUBWAY/AP Images)
COMMERCIAL IMAGE - Apolo Ohno takes a break from his hectic schedule and visits a local SUBWAY location to enjoy his training food of choice on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in London. (Photo by Jon Furniss/Invision for SUBWAY/AP Images)
Customers join Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine as he announces that he will be eating avocado every day of Avocado Season at SUBWAY® at the Universal CityWalk SUBWAY® restaurant on Friday June 8, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Casey Rodgers /Invision for SUBWAY® /AP Images)
US sandwich maker Subway co-founder and chairman for the world, the self-made billionaire Fred DeLuca, poses with a sandwich in a Parisian Subway restaurant on June 17, 2011 prior to attend a meeting with the press as part of the 10th anniversary of Subway France. Subway has seen its number of restaurants balloon to 33,749 across the globe as of January 1, making it the world's largest fast food chain ahead of McDonald, with 32,737 restaurants, as reported on March 11, 2011. AFP PHOTO ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 29: A new Turkey and Bacon Melt Wrap is seen December 29, 2003 in Chicago. Subway restaurants today started to offer two Atkins Nutritionals, Inc.-endorsed low-carbohydrate wraps. The Turkey and Bacon Melt Wrap with Monterey cheddar cheese and the Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap with Swiss cheese. Both Atkins-Friendly Wraps are available in the U.S. and Canada and have 11 grams Net Carbs or less. The wrap itself, which is made with wheat gluten, cornstarch, oat, sesame flour and soy protein, has only 5 grams Net Carbs. Subway Restaurants is the first quick serve restaurant to partner with Atkins Nutritionals Inc. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 29: A new Turkey and Bacon Melt Wrap is seen December 29, 2003 in Chicago. Subway restaurants today started to offer two Atkins Nutritionals, Inc.-endorsed low-carbohydrate wraps. The Turkey and Bacon Melt Wrap with Monterey cheddar cheese and the Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap with Swiss cheese. Both Atkins-Friendly Wraps are available in the U.S. and Canada and have 11 grams Net Carbs or less. The wrap itself, which is made with wheat gluten, cornstarch, oat, sesame flour and soy protein, has only 5 grams Net Carbs. Subway Restaurants is the first quick serve restaurant to partner with Atkins Nutritionals Inc. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 29: Subway restaurant store owner Shirish Dave prepares a new Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap December 29, 2003 in Chicago. Subway restaurants today started to offer two Atkins Nutritionals, Inc.-endorsed low-carbohydrate wraps. The Turkey and Bacon Melt Wrap with Monterey cheddar cheese and the Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap with Swiss cheese. Both Atkins-Friendly Wraps are available in the U.S. and Canada and have 11 grams Net Carbs or less. The wrap itself, which is made with wheat gluten, cornstarch, oat, sesame flour and soy protein, has only 5 grams Net Carbs. Subway Restaurants is the first quick serve restaurant to partner with Atkins Nutritionals Inc. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
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The purging of artificial ingredients is quickly becoming the norm among major food companies, which are facing pressure from smaller players that tout their offerings as more wholesome. That has prompted so-called "Big Food" makers including Taco Bell, McDonald's, Kraft and Nestle to announce in recent months they're expelling artificial ingredients from one or more products.

Subway's announcement, meanwhile, comes at a challenging time for the chain. The company is privately held and doesn't disclose sales figures. But last year, sales for Subway stores in the U.S. averaged $475,000 each, a 3 percent decline from the previous year, according to industry tracker Technomic.

Subway is facing evolving definitions for what qualifies as healthy, said Darren Tristano, an analyst for Technomic. While older generations looked at nutritional stats like fat and calories, he said younger generations are more concerned about qualities like "local," "organic" and "natural."

"Change has come so fast and rapidly, consumers are just expecting more and more," Tristano said.

And although Subway markets itself as a fresher option, he noted that people don't necessarily see it as the healthiest or best product around.

Last year, Subway's image took a hit when food activist Vani Hari, known as the Food Babe, launched a petition calling on it to remove azodicarbonamide from its bread, noting the ingredient was used in yoga mats. Subway has said that it was in the process of removing the ingredient, which is widely used as a dough condition and whitening agent, before the issue became a controversy.

Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, noted the chain is already seen as a place for low-fat options, but that it needs to keep up with changing customer attitudes.

"As their expectations go up, we have to meet those expectations," he said.

Pace said the use of simple ingredients is becoming a "necessary condition" to satisfy customers, but that it won't be enough on its own to drive up sales.

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