Subway has announced that sodium levels in its 6" Fresh Fit sandwich line have now been reduced by 29% and sodium levels in its overall sandwich line by 15% since it began implementing reductions.
The reductions, achieved in stages, required working with bread, meat and other ingredients vendors, testing to ensure that the sandwiches' "flavor profiles" continued to meet consumers' expectations, and vendor ramp-up to supply sufficient, lower-sodium products for the chain.
Sodium milligrams in Fresh Fit sandwiches have been reduced to 737 (versus 1,024 in 2009), while sodium in a regular 6" ham sandwich is now at 830, versus 1,260 in 2009.
Most of the chain's 12" sandwiches still exceed the 1,800 daily maximum now recommended in the Dietary Guidelines. But Subway has already met the 2012 levels it pledged to reach under the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) and has confirmed it will also meet its pledged 2014 levels.
Three other restaurant chains signed onto NSRI when it launched last year -- Starbucks, Au Bon Pain and Chicago Uno Grill. Burger King and a few other chains have reduced sodium in some items.
But Subway appears to be the first national QSR to promote salt reduction nationally. "You occasionally see an item advertised by other chains, but the others don't have as robust a [reduced-sodium] offering, nor do I think they have the long-term commitment that we have," Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace tells Marketing Daily.
"Being in the health space requires continuous improvement, and you don't always come out and announce it every time you do something," Pace adds. "But in this case, we felt an announcement was appropriate, because we're proud of this significant improvement in sodium reduction, without in any way requiring taste sacrifice on our customers' part."
Last year, an Institute of Medicine report recommended that the government set mandatory national standards for sodium content in packaged and restaurant foods and phase these in over a number of years. The National Restaurant Association objects to regulation, instead supporting a "voluntary, incremental approach."
Consumer advocates point out that sodium levels have continued to be high for four decades, despite high sodium consumption's known contribution to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The main reasons come down to the difficulty of reducing sodium while preserving taste, and fear of scaring consumers off or losing business to competitors, even if the taste is preserved.
"For the most part, chains are still working on the calories challenge, and aren't going to start moving on the sodium front until there's more government pressure or regulation," says Dennis Lombardi, EVP, foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a design and development firm for restaurants and retail chains. "Subway is getting out in front on the sodium issue, which fits with the healthier positioning that has been so successful for them."
Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center of Science in the Public Interest nutrition advocacy group, told USA Today that "it's great to see large companies like Subway reducing sodium levels," adding that he hopes its efforts will continue until sodium is down by half.
In January, a New Jersey appellate court confirmed a lower court's ruling dismissing a CSPI-supported class action brought by a man suing Denny's for fraud on the grounds that he would not have purchased its high-sodium foods had Denny's disclosed their sodium levels. The courts ruled that the claim was not a proper Consumer Fraud Act claim, nor did it have the element of proven physical injury necessary to qualify it as a traditional product liability claim.