Nov. 8, 2020

Episode 002: Food Fear and the Infamous Yoga Mat Ingredient


Becca takes us through the history of Subway and some of the lawsuits they've faced over the years, including the scandals of "Subway Jared" and the 11-inch footlong. Sarah then explores Subway's PR nightmare of 2014 - the dreaded "yoga mat ingredient" in their bread. She discusses the origin of the tale, common logical fallacies, food fear, and the importance of critically appraising evidence (and the source of your evidence). She finishes by answering the question to the most recent scandal - is Subway bread really bread?

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Transcript

R: Welcome everyone, I’m Becca...


S: ...and I’m Sarah. How are you doing today?


Okay Becca, what did I ask you 


B: The history of the Subway sandwich franchise and some fun facts 


S: Oooooo … can’t wait to learn! Before we dive in, I want everyone to know that all the citations and relevant links for anything mentioned in this episode will be in the episode description and in our show notes at
thenutritionjunky.com (that’s junky with a “Y”). Also, the information in this podcast is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you’re interested in medical nutrition therapy or personalized nutrition advice, please talk to a doctor or registered dietitian in your area. This podcast may contain coarse language, mature subject matter and content of a violent or disturbing nature. Listener discretion is advised.

B: The first ever Subway opened in 1965 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A 17 year old by the name of Fred DeLuca partnered with a family friend named Peter Buck to open a sandwich shop to help pay for his college tuition. Peter invested $1000 into the business and they named the first location
Pete’s Super Submarines (SUBWAY THE). Their slogan was “try one for Pete’s sake!”. They later renamed the location Subway after realizing that saying “Pete’s Submarines” in radio advertisements sounded like they were saying Pizza Marines - and listeners were getting confused (THE TIMES).


By 1974 Fred and Peter were operating 16 Subway shops in Connecticut, but they wanted to expand, so they began franchising the business (SUBWAY HOW). In 2019 they were the largest fast food restaurant in the world in terms of restaurant locations - larger than McDonald’s AND Starbucks. However, McDonald’s tops the charts in terms of sales (_BUSINESS INSIDER_). Today, Subway has over 44 thousand locations in 110 countries and they employ around 300 thousand people (SUBWAY HOW).


In terms of sub popularity, Sarah, take a guess at which sub is the most popular.


The most popular subs are the Italian BMT (which I had no idea stands for Biggest, Meatiest, Tastiest), Tuna, the Subway Club and Meatball Marinara (SUBWAY HOW).


It is estimated that every single minute, Subway serves 2,800 subs and that over the course of a year, the number of sandwiches that they have sold could wrap around the Earth 6 times…(SUBWAY HOW).


Unfortunately, in 2013, the founder Fred DeLuca was diagnosed with leukemia, and on September 14th, 2015, he passed away. According to Forbes magazine, at the time of his death, he was worth 2.5 billion dollars. Despite his fortune, DeLuca was known as being a humble man as he drove a Honda and wore the same $25 sweaters throughout the years (FORBES & TIMES).


I know that this is an inspiring business story, but this type of success never comes without some drama. And in the case of Subway, there is A LOT of drama. 


DeLuca’s younger sister Suzanne Greco took over the company operations in 2013 (TIMES). She had worked at the company for over 25 years before retiring in 2018 following many instances of scandal. These included location closures, disputes with franchisees and lawsuits. I will mention a few of these stories now before you go deep into the research.

Subway has done A LOT of marketing around their sandwiches. And with a slogan like “Eat Fresh” their message is pretty clear - this food must be fresh. They have been branding themselves as the healthy choice over other fast food chains for decades. 


As you might remember, in the year 2000, they hired a spokesman by the name of Jared Fogle to help promote the brand. His claim to fame was that he lost 200 lbs while eating Subway sandwiches twice a day. He was in numerous ads up until 2015 where he either discussed his weight loss, posed next to an old pair of pants or compared the nutrients in different fast food sandwiches. At the time he was a cultural icon.


However, in 2015, Jared was charged and sentenced to 15 years in prison for child pornography and engaging in sexual conduct with a minor. So it turns out, that this guy is a full on creep. 


Naturally, being associated with a man who has committed one of the worst crimes out there, Subway experienced a lot of backlash. Even more so when Jared’s ex wife Kathleen McLaughlin filed a lawsuit in Indiana against Subway. She claimed that they had knowledge about Jared’s sexual interests as early as 2004. I should make note here that in 2017, the case was dismissed and the judge cited that there was a "lack of personal jurisdiction" in the case. It was argued that the case should not take place in Indiana since the company nor the conduct took place there (GALE). If McLaughlin wants to move forward, she will likely want to do so from Connecticut, where Subway is headquartered.


Footlong

One other major scandal was that of the Footlong. Do you remember hearing about this?


In 2013, an Australian teen posted an image to his social media channels of a footlong Subway sandwich laying next to a measuring tape. The controversy sparked when the sandwich only met the 11 inch mark on the measuring tape, leading consumers to believe that they were being scammed of an inch of bread and toppings. This post went viral and led to a class action lawsuit against Subway. In 2016, the two sides settled and Subway agreed to pay the plaintiffs the $525 thousand in legal fees and an additional $500 a piece to the 10 plaintiffs.


However, the class appealed after a man by the name of Ted Frank joined their team. He is the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Class Action Fairness. He claimed that each Subway bread roll is created with the same ingredients and the same weight of ingredients, and that variations in the baking process are normal and cannot be prevented.

Subway won the appeal, but they were required to add a disclaimer in each restaurant and on their websites that states: "Due to natural variations in the bread baking process, the size and shape of bread may vary'". Frank expressed that the plaintiff’s attorneys were likely abusing the class action system for their own personal profit, as the original lawsuit had no real merit (MAZE). 


Isn’t that interesting?

S: I have really fond memories of Subway (not sponsored, by the way). I worked at a Dairy Queen in highschool, and my friend worked at a nearby subway as a sandwich artist and we would call each other and trade subs for blizzards, and it was the best. It’s also safe to say that Subway fed me 40% of my meals in first year university. So, Subway has a special place in my heart, but it’s also been in the spotlight for quite a few scandals over the past decade - when I say that, Becca, do any immediately come to mind?


So I have a theory, and I want to float it by you so you can keep it in your back pocket and sort of see how it feels as we go through today’s scandals: I think Subway has received more food-related public backlash than any other fast food company, even though Subway is not alone in most of these “misdemeanors” but I think Subway gets all the heat because of their “eat fresh” branding. Right, their marketing has been so effective that people choose Subway because they expect it to be a healthier choice, so when people read media reports that target Subway, they’re upset and they understandably have some questions. 


So, if you’re eating subway everyday for lunch and you’re doing that because you want to make the healthier choice and then someone tells you you’re actually eating a yoga mat… you might not be so pleased. 


But we know, and I think more people are starting to learn this as well, that it’s important to take a step back when it comes to new or shocking nutrition information, do your research and ask yourself: Is this scandal worth the hype or is it creating  unnecessary fear around food? Because sometimes that fear is just as detrimental as the “bad” ingredient in and of itself. 


Ready?


So, like Becca said, Subway’s PR troubles took a dark turn in 2015, when their spokesperson was charged with pedophilia, but one year before that, in 2014, there was the great yoga mat bread controversy! Do you remember this? Yoga mat → feet → bread. But honestly, this is before I had nutrition education and I probably just read the headline, like most people do, made a quick impression and moved on! 


Okay, so I want to preface this story by saying it’s totally okay to question what is in your food, but it’s equally important to question the legitimacy of those concerns. 


So in 2014, food blogger Vani Hari, who runs the Food Babe blog, started an online petition raising questions about the safety of a commonly used food additive called Azodicarbonamide aka. ADA. I’m going to call it ADA for the rest of this story - because that is way easier than Azodicarbonamide. 


First, I want to spend a little time talking about the founder of Food Babe, Vani Hari. I can’t stress this enough, I am all for encouraging consumers to make informed choices, but she uses questionable tactics. At face value, you visit her site, you see someone who is advocating for people to be conscious consumers and consume less processed foods and she’s also promoting her own brand of “natural” products. However, she uses pseudoscience (soo-do) laced with tons of personal bias, misinformation and fear-mongering language. Vani does not have any scientific or nutrition or toxicology qualifications listed on her website, and from my research it looks like she only has a background in finance. And this image is from her “about me” page: it’s a before & after picture of Vani. The before has Vani in a slightly larger body and her eyes are sort of shut like the picture was snapped while she was laughing and she includes pictures of fast food underneath implying that’s what she was eating, then the after is her after she lost some weight and she has pictures of fruit underneath, implying she was eating more whole foods. 


But what do we know about before and afters? We know that before/afters can usually be boiled down to a good picture in good lighting vs an unflattering picture. If I wanted to, I could take two pictures today that look like before/afters just based on the time of day, lighting, poses, makeup, outfit, filters, etc. 


Anyways, this isn’t about the scandal that is before/after photos - maybe that should be a separate episode

Further, I’m going to read this straight from her home page:

We live in a world that's making us sick, tired, and overweight. Big Food Brands design their packaged products to be addictive... so we consume unhealthy ingredients over and over again...AND IT GETS WORSE... risky chemicals contaminating our food aren't labelled. Product labels are lying. Our food is pumped up with cheap additives that are banned in others countries. I decided to take matters into my own hands. So I created a company called Truvani .... etc. 

Vani has a book, and the title quite literally says it all: “The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days!” 


21 days to look years younger - seems almost too good to be true! 


And this is a quote from that book “There is just no acceptable level of chemical to ingest, ever.” news flash, if you decided to stop ingesting chemicals, you’d have to stop eating completely and stop breathing too! Everything is made up of chemicals, whether they occur naturally or are made in a lab.


Ascorbic acid is good old vitamin C, pyridoxine (sounds like something that melt your skin off) is vitamin B6, acetic acid is commonly found in vinegar - great for salad dressings, and carboxymethylcellulose is an additive used to stabilize ice cream and it’s a carbohydrate found in the cell walls of plants. We are exposed to literally thousands of chemicals every single day. 


Okay, back to Food Babe commonly uses a logical fallacy that has actually been referred to as the Food Babe fallacy: and that’s when she takes an ingredient that has non-food applications, and declares that that ingredient is bad because it’s also in food. But those two things are actually unrelated - something can be used in food and also used in a non-food application, and that doesn’t mean they pose a risk to human health. For example, vitamin C, we all know it and love it, but it’s also used as a developing agent in photo production. 


So you can see why this is problematic, for the average person who is trying to get some nutrition advice, it can be a convincing argument. When Vani compares eating bread to eating a yoga mat, that’s a visual that sticks.


Okay, so back to Subway! So I’m going to send you this infographic made by the food babe about Subway and an ingredient in their bread:

So I have an issue with some of the language she uses, particularly the false equivalence between eating subway and eating a yoga mat. So, False equivalence occurs when two subjects are compared based on flawed reasoning. For example, “comparing apples and oranges, which both contain vitamin C, does not make them the same” and because there is a shared ingredient between yoga mats and certain breads, doesn’t mean that eating that bread is the same as eating a yoga mat. 


& I know this sounds semantical, no one actually thinks subway bread is a yoga mat, but when it creates public fear and spreads misinformation, there is another issue at hand. Right? Anyone can read this!


Also, back to my theory at the start, in 2014 ADA was in over 500 food products in North America, everything from Wonder Bread to Little Debbie treats, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Chik-Fil-A etc. so attacking Subway alone is a little unfair. 


Okay, so despite my issues with the language she uses, she does make some legitimate points and her petition was ultimately successful! So first of all, Food Babe is right, ADA is banned in the UK, EU, and AUS. 


So then why the heck are we adding ADA to bread here in North America? 


Azodicarbonamide is a fine powder often used in commercial baking to bleach flour, which basically just makes the bread whiter, and to condition the dough, so dough produced with ADA is typically drier and it sticks together better, which means you end up with fluffier loaf with a better texture. And this ability to take on air and improve fluffiness is the reason it's also used in yoga mats - it’s a foaming agent for plastics! 


There is evidence linking ADA to respiratory reactions like asthma, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to classify ADA as actual respiratory allergen. So not the strongest evidence, but enough to cause the World Health Organization to conclude that “the risk is uncertain and exposure levels should be limited as much as possible” with regards to inhaling ADA.  


So yes, there is a potential risk if you are exposed to the raw powdered form of ADA, but when we, the consumer, eat a subway sandwich, we’re not actually consuming raw ADA. As the ADA bakes, it is decomposed into two other compounds: semicarbazimide and urethane. This is where things get even murkier: both semicarbazimide and urethane have been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies. These studies were conducted in mice, not humans, and using far greater amounts of semicarbazimide and urethane (also called ethyl carbamate) than humans would ever consume from bread products. 


u/p4gs: reddit thread: in order for an average human (weighing 136 lbs or 62 kg) to experience any of these side effects from semicarbazide exposure in commercially-produced bread, they would have to eat anywhere from 10000 lbs to 27000 lbs of said bread, such as Subway's (possibly over a 28 day period, too). Which would NEVER happen! The dose makes the poison. 


The FDA, has classified azodicarbonamide as GRAS or Generally Recognized As Safe because amount of ADA used in bread production is miniscule - about 45 ppm in flour, tiny tiny tiny amounts, and very likely far too small to cause any impact on human health. 


Okay, so now we know that there isn’t a lot of evidence to say that ADA or semicarbazamide are harmful to humans at levels found in bread, but the claims aren’t completely unfounded right? Animal studies are usually the first step in establishing those mechanistic links - is this something we really want in our food system?


So at this point, Becca, what’s your gut feeling saying about Azodicarbonamide in some breads?


So then we have to ask: maybe there isn’t any clear, hard scientific evidence to conclusively say that ADA is harmful to human health, but is it a necessary ingredient in bread? And if it’s not, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? 


Well, that’s what scientist Lisa Lefferts thinks. Lisa specializes in food additives at the CSPI Centre for Science in the Public Interest. Lisa wrote that “considering that many breads don’t contain azodicarbonamide and that its use slightly increases the exposure to a carcinogen, this is hardly a chemical that we need in our food supply.” and she urges the FDA to bar the use of ADA.


So, after FOOD BABE started this petition, there was a huge public outcry to eliminate ADA from bread and over 100,000 signed the Food Babe’s petition. I think planting that visual of eating yoga mats in people's minds was really effective - it just feels kind of icky and doesn’t feel very fresh. And while there was never any evidence that Subway exceeded the legal safe limits of ADA in it’s bread, they did opt to phase ADA out of their breads shortly after the petition.


Ok, let’s bring this story home, Becca, last episode you taught me that fake news is 70% more likely to be shared than real news. People love a shocking or weird story, and even I remember learning about the subway yoga mat bread because the headlines were just so bizarre! But I want to revisit the food babe blog here for a second, because even though she technically won in this case and got subway to remove the chemical, the research doesn’t necessarily support it and misinformation can be harmful.


What food babe does, probably unintentionally, is use a technique called point-counterpoint: where she raises a point or a questions, okay, and then gets a scientist or an authority to refute it, which they successfully do. Seems good right? Scientist prove her wrong. But what that does is create a false disagreement in the public's mind, it creates the illusion that there is a debate or uncertainty about these ingredients where there actually isn’t! 


I love this quote from Registered Dietitian Monica Rainagel for Huffington post:

“Ingesting too much dihydrogen monoxide can put you into a coma. Inhaling the stuff can kill you. Why aren't we petitioning Subway to remove dihydrogen monoxide from their bread as well? Because this "toxic" chemical is also known as water.”


So I do get it, getting curious about what you’re eating is good, but the questions can’t stop at the ingredients, you have to continue to ask questions about where and who you are getting your information from. Is it a credible source, what’s their bias, do they have financial motivations? I have to say, after all my research, I am personally not worried about yoga mat chemicals in my bread, I am not consuming fast food breads very often, and will continue to enjoy delicious subway subs whenever I’m on a roadtrip and there’s nothing else around. 


----------


Okay, so the whole reason I actually thought of this topic was because Subway bread recently made the news again for another scandalous reason: their bread apparently isn’t even bread! 


This is actually a really quick story because it’s not that scandalous! 


On September 29th, 2020, the supreme court in Ireland ruled that subway bread, all 6 flavours (Italian white bread, Italian herbs and cheese, nine-grain wheat, hearty Italian, nine-grain multi-seed, and honey oat) have too much sugar to be legally considered bread! It looks like bread, it tastes like bread! But according to Irish courts, it is not bread enough to meet the legal definition of bread outlined for the Value-Added Tax.  


So I researched, Value-Added Tax (VAT). So a value added tax or a VAT is basically a goods and services tax (GST) based on the product, and flour and egg based bakery products like bread, can qualify for a zero rate! So for most products in Ireland, it hovers around a 13.5% rate, Subway was originally paying a 9.2% reduced rate, and they went to the courts to try to get that down to a 0% rate. 


The law states that bread must be composed exclusively of flour, yeast or another leavening agent, and fat or sugar NOT exceeding 2% of the weight of the flour. Subway bread had 10% sugar compared to the weight of flour, it clearly exceeds the max sugar content in order to be considered bread. The thing is - a lot of loaves that we think of as bread wouldn’t actually qualify for the 0% VAT. Typically garlic bread, onion bread, cheese bread, and fennel bread do not qualify. 

So 10% sugar sounds like a lot, but have you ever heard the riddle: What weighs more, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers? They weigh the same but the quantities are going to be vastly different. So 10% weight does not necessarily mean 10% volume because a smaller quantity of sugar will weigh just as much as a larger quantity of flour! 

Now, the Toronto Sun reported that a 6-inch white roll of subway bread contains 5 g of sugar. And considering that the toppings usually aren’t very sweet, just vegetables, cheese, meats, so this is certainly not a very high sugar lunch and nothing to be freaked out about! If the Irish Subway franchisee hadn’t taken it’s case to the supreme court to try and get money back, the sugar content would have never made the news because it’s just not that scandalous…


But I want to read some of the headlines I found that might make you think otherwise:


“Subway bread is deemed to be cake”


“Subway bread - if you can call it that”


“Is subway sandwich bread actually… a pastry?”


And then I visited Twitter and searched #subwaybread and … yikes


@pizagno tweeted “Funny that it took #subwaybread to show people that big corporations poison our food and hide it from the population. It isn't just Subway.”


@DTashe tweeted “Italian Herb & Cheesecake #SubwayBread #Subway


So to me, after reading all this tax information and seeing what people are saying online, it’s clear that it has been blown way out of proportion. From the little I know about tax law, I don’t think the lawmakers want to make it super easy for people to qualify for 0% tax, so they likely set the 2% sugar by weight limit quite low. Yes, there is more sugar in subway bread than maybe we expected, but at about 5g per 6-inch loaf, it’s not that high. The WHO organization recommends that adults aim for 25g of sugar a day or less, so a subway sandwich is well within that recommendation, so don’t put Subway on your blacklist just yet. 


Okay and I have one more Subway bread story for you: 


July 17, 2008” A man claims that he was nearly cut when he found a knife baked into the bun of a cold-cut 12-inch sandwich he bought at a Subway restaurant in New York City.

27-year-old John Agnesini was shocked to find a 7-inch serrated blade baked into the bread

He says it was protruding into the half of the sandwich he was about to start chomping on and that it "could've slashed" the side of his mouth.

And John Agnesini ended up suing for $1,000,000 and reaching a $20,000 settlement.

Becca - after everything you’ve heard about Subway today, how do you feel?

I feel a little bad - and I know they are a massive corporation and they’re doing just fine and they likely don’t need my empathy but I do feel that because of their “eat fresh” branding and their reputation for being a healthier choice, they have been scrutinized unfairly about ingredients and practices that are normal and safe in food industry and aren’t actually a significant threat to human health. 

Take home message: It’s okay to pay attention to what's in our food, but I think we need to become more discriminating about our causes -- and our sources.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Dietetics After Dark. You can find all the references and materials used to put this podcast together in our show notes at thenutritionjunky.com/dieteticsafterdark. 


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