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    Subway’s New Fortified Breads: A Good Source of “Healthwashing”

    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 healthHigh 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.



    1. Vannah said on August 1st, 2011

      I can’t help but feel ashamed to work for this company, especially during one of these “healthy” additions to our menu. They always create a slight influx of customers and I just feel bad selling them food that’s a lie. Half of our “fresh vegetables” come from bags. I don’t understand how people think it’s good for them.

    2. Kim said on August 1st, 2011

      Andy! I just discovered you on Fooducate and then quickly searched for your blog. You write about everything that has been making me CRAZY for years. I hate that big food companies are allowed to falsely market their food as “healthy” when it’s barely considered real food. I hate that people say, “eating healthy is too hard, or too expensive”. I hate that people willingly treat their bodies like garbage dumps and shrug their shoulders to say “eh, everybody has it” when they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I simply cannot understand why it isn’t a priority for people, especially PARENTS, to learn how to buy and prepare healthy food for their families. Phew, it feels good to vent! I hope folks like you continue to spread the word to the masses…I’ll do what I can in my sphere of influence. 🙂

    3. Jenni said on August 2nd, 2011

      Wow. Thank you for a fantastic post. It’s so refreshing to read a point-by-point rebuttal of fortified foods. Retweeting.

    4. Lauren Slayton said on August 2nd, 2011

      Fortification is a read flag not something to brag about. Arugula needs to fortification. If you have to fortify something it was weak to begin with. I think good to point out to people that the bread is nasty to start with but if every time you see “vitamin _ added” people rethink, we’d be on the right track. I’m sure there are exceptions but not that many.

    5. Ken Leebow said on August 2nd, 2011

      Last week the “happy” meal, this week Subway’s bread, next week??? …

      It seems like whac-a-mole to me.

      It appears to stay out of the Circle of Disease, we should forgo (minimize not moderation) fast food, soda, candy, sugar, processed food, and junk food.

      Interestingly, Jack Lalanne gave us this sound advice 50+ years ago. Unfortunately, most have ignored it.

    6. Andy Bellatti said on August 2nd, 2011


      I consider the “new” Happy Meal and Subway’s latest are news-worthy items and classic examples of Big Food’s attempts at pulling the wool over people’s eyes. They are also two very distinct “smoke and mirror” cases, and I found it important to write about them. Additionally, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who ask me “Subway is a healthy choice, right?”.

    7. Andy Bellatti said on August 2nd, 2011


      Absolutely. That is another shift that needs to happen!

    8. Ken Leebow said on August 2nd, 2011


      I certainly understand and appreciate your passion. You are doing a great job and service. (You even convinced me to change to Uncle Sam’s cereal.)

      Unfortunately, it’s never-ending. I had someone tell me yesterday that PepsiCo has a health initiative with its products. I had to explain the problem and that Pepsi would have to stop selling Pepsi and many other products to have a real health initiative.

      And, of course, people have been bamboozled into thinking cane sugar is better than HFCS.

      Of course, the list goes on and on.

      Such as the one Yoni had yesterday …

      That’s a real laugher.

      There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors out there. Good luck corralling it all.

      Keep up the good fight,

      Ken Leebow

    9. Andrew @ Eating Rulres said on August 2nd, 2011

      I was disheartened to learn awhile back that Subway’s “9-Grain Wheat” bread has more HFCS than whole grains.

      However, Subway can be a reasonably healthful fast-food choice — IF you get a salad instead of a sandwich, and IF you get spinach instead of iceberg lettuce, and IF you go easy on the dressing (or just get vinegar!), and IF you load up on the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and avocado.

      Yeah, that’s a lot of “ifs”! (but hey, it’s possible — and that actually turns into a rather nice $5 salad.)

      Also, If I’m reading the sodium & bone loss study summary right, they consider 3,900mg/day to be the low group. That sounds pretty high to me, actually — and is significantly higher than USDA recommendations… Then again, I guess 3,900 is probably on the low end for Americans, eh?

    10. Andy Bellatti said on August 2nd, 2011


      Thank you. And I know exactly what you mean — it is never-ending. In a way, I’m okay with that, as it guarantees me something to write about and continue to expose!

    11. Andy Bellatti said on August 2nd, 2011


      My issue with Subway is that the idea of the “healthful” choices are still ones that don’t add significant nutrition to a meal — they just make it “not as bad”. Going easy on the dressing is simply about tacking on fewer calories, not about eating something that is less-processed or offers more minerals or healthier fats/oils. It’s not as if one can have a salad with beans or sunflower seeds.

      Regarding the study — sodium and salt are two different things. 1 gram of salt = 400 mg sodium (the remaining 600 mg are chloride). It’s problematic when people use the two terms as synonyms (when people are told they should “have no more than 5 grams of salt a day”, they erroneously think that means 5,000 mg of sodium!).

    12. Andrew @ Eating Rulres said on August 2nd, 2011

      Yep, I completely agree with you that the options which they market as “healthful” aren’t truly so.

      My point was that one can get a healthful salad at Subway — even without sunflower seeds or beans. (Spinach, avocado, onion, tomato, bell pepper, and cucumber are all good choices.) Moreover, by getting a salad like that, it’s possible to get a healthier meal at Subway than it is at, say, McDonald’s. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean anyone other than me is doing it — so it’s kind of a moot point anyway. Sigh.

      Thanks for the clarification on salt vs. sodium. I’m always careful to use the word “sodium,” but when reading the summary, I clearly missed that they looked at “salt” quantities instead!

    13. Nora said on August 2nd, 2011

      “Health-washing” is a great term.

      I was explaining the Happy Meal changes to my husband the other day and he said “well, what could they do to make you happy?” And I realized the answer meant changing their menu so that it was no longer recognizable as fast food, which would send most of their customers straight to Burger King and KFC. Regulating fast food advertising and cutting corn and soy subsidies is the only real answer.

    14. Andy Bellatti said on August 2nd, 2011


      Exactly. And, I would also add not trying to pass publicity stunts as “healthful”.

    15. John Huerta said on August 3rd, 2011

      I totally agree

    16. Kim M. said on August 8th, 2011

      The most irritating thing for me regarding Subway is that, according to Bloomberg Business Week, the company’s CEO and co-founder is an M.D. I guess they’re just trying to drum up business with those ads, both for Subway and for physicians’ practices worldwide.

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