Last week, while the new and “healthier” Happy Meals captured the attention of the nutrition and public health world, the folks at Subway quietly announced their latest “commitment to nutrition” — breads fortified with calcium and vitamin D. In brief, “now, each 6-inch serving of bread in the 24,000-plus U.S. restaurants provides 30 percent of the daily recommended value of calcium and 20 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin D.”
Subway’s press release materials predictably include this quote from their in-house dietitian:
“This is certainly exciting for us to now have our bread fortified with bone-building power houses calcium and vitamin D.”
I do not share the excitement. Nor am I cheering, applauding, “giving props”, or praising. I’m simultaneously irritated and bored. Irritated with the self-congratulatory press release; bored with Big Food’s tried and true “healthwashing” tactics (Subway’s “health halo” has already been implicated with higher caloric intakes).
Our myopic associations between nutrients and disease states (ie: “bone health = calcium”) have led to a food environment where Diet Coke contains B vitamins, Fruity Pebbles have vitamin D, Splenda offers fiber, and Kool-Aid is an “excellent source” of vitamin C.
Nutrient fortification of marginally nutritious foods is troubling and misleading. It propagates the notion that proper nutrition is simply about getting enough vitamins and minerals each day, regardless of food quality and no matter what else comes along with those nutrients (artificial sweeteners, tablespoon upon tablespoon of sugar, partially hydrogenated oils, and food dyes, to name a few).
So what if Subway’s breads now offer as much calcium and vitamin D as a glass of milk? They also offer a hefty amount of sodium (a 6″ “spicy Italian” sub provides three quarters of a day’s worth, while a 6″ pulled pork contains as much as 13 McNuggets). Not everyone is sensitive to sodium’s hypertensive effects, but excessive amounts are nevertheless problematic from other standpoints — one example: bone health. High intakes of sodium result in high urinary excretions of calcium.
Additionally, Subway’s offerings are low in other nutrients that, despite being often ignored by the mainstream media, are crucial for bone health.
Calcium is already abundant in our food supply. Sure, there are dairy products, but cows are essentially calcium middlemen. They get it from grass or fortification of their feed. I recommend going straight to the source and consuming more dark, leafy greens (kale, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, and mustard greens are all excellent sources). Chickpeas, almonds, and calcium-set tofu are also good sources of calcium. PS: Plant-based source of calcium have the added advantage of offering additional nutrients necessary for bone health, like vitamin K.
A note on vitamin D: I believe the existing official guidelines (600 International Units a day for those ages 1 through 70) are too low. Since many of us live in latitudes where our bodies can not produce vitamin D from the sun throughout much of the year and/or use moisturizers with UVB protection that limits vitamin D production, I support supplementation of at least 2,000 International Units a day. I condone true supplements (in tablet, gelcap, or liquid form), not fortified food (mainly due to the nutritionally mediocre foods that are “awarded” nutrient fortification).
The best thing Subway can do to its bread is make them with simple ingredients that resemble real food. As it stands, their Italian bread “boasts” most-likely-genetically-modified soybean oil, sodium stearoyl lactylate (an ingredient in acne creams) and ‘flavor’; their wraps contains disturbingly-high-in-omega-6 cottonseed oil; their sourdough bread is made with high fructose corn syrup, and their Monterey cheddar bread contains artificial color. The presence of calcium and vitamin D is nothing more than a transparent and distracting ‘healthifying’ tactic.