Subway wants to give new meaning to its "eat fresh" slogan by joining the list of food companies to say it's dropping artificial ingredients.
The sandwich chain known for its marketing itself as a healthier 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.
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 comes at a challenging time for the chain, which grew to be the world's largest restaurant brand by number of locations with the help of weight loss pitchman Jared Fogle.
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.