Subway Keeps Changing Its Chicken Teriyaki on the Sly
Subway's Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sub does very big business. The chain's roughly 27,000 U.S. stores sold more than 84 million of the popular sandwich last year alone, and the item has ranked as a massive seller for more than a decade. “It’s not something you could change the flavor of,” says Subway’s Executive Chef Chris Martone.
But that doesn't mean the vaunted sweet onion sub is immune to change. Many-syllabled artificial flavors have been vanishing from Subway's chicken, with little fanfare from the company and as little notice from regular customers as possible. Subway locations in the U.S. have quietly subtracted disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate—both flavor enhancers that lend foods like Doritos a savoriness—from their chicken marinade in recent months, although the additives remain in certain condiments.
It's all part of an effort to simplify ingredients on as many items as possible, a policy that became all the more urgent after Subway was caught in a campaign about a food additive last year. Activists demanded the removal of the so-called yoga mat chemical, azodicarbonamide, from its bread. Subway eventually complied, claiming it was planning to remove the substance anyhow, and then turned its attention to other additives that might not be necessary. "We're going through all the products on the list," says Martone. The recent changes affect all items that use chicken strips.
If there’s a way to reduce Subway's ingredients or swap out an unfamiliar substance for something customers "feel good about eating or seeing on our ingredients list, we’ll do it," says Lanette Kovachi, the dietician for a sandwich chain long associated with dieting. The next frontier, according to Martone, could be the removal of artificial colors.
Martone and Kovachi, who together have controlled Subway's menu for about 15 years, are more than willing to tinker with a hit and have done so at different times in the chicken teriyaki sub's 12-year run. It turns out that best-selling sandwiches need to evolve constantly, even when the goal is to leave the taste unchanged. Subway gradually removed a large portion of sodium, a process that took years. The chicken strips no longer contain medium chain triglycerides, a type of fat Subway has used for flavor and to prevent meat sticking to the cooking surface. Caramel color was taken out of the teriyaki and sweet onion sauces.
All of this tinkering may lead one to wonder why all that stuff was in the sandwich anyhow. "Some of it is habit," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It's cheaper to use artificial ingredients than natural ones, he points out, and many companies simply didn't subject their ingredients to the same level of scrutiny as they do now. Not all synthetic ingredients are harmful to health, but "it's a real marketing device" to declare an ingredient list has been cleaned up, Jacobson says.
With each iteration, the chicken teriyaki sandwich appears to have less and less stuff going into it. Ingredients with a healthy veneer have been the exception to the simplification drive: Subway just added flecks of parsley to the chicken. And, of course, the new chicken recipe still contains a sizable number of ingredients.
By catering to the country's legions of weight watchers, Subway holds an unusual position in the American fast-food landscape. While most restaurants can get by with a limited array of healthy choices, the challenge at Subway's Milford (Conn.) headquarters is keeping its entire menu reasonably healthy. You won’t, for example, find any six-inch sub with more than 600 calories, and the vast majority have fewer than 25 grams of fat.
“I push the limits on them periodically,” Martone, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, says of his more indulgent sub ideas. "But it’s a waste of time.” The chef says he reverse-engineers recipes developed in the test kitchen and tweaks existing subs to meet Kovachi’s changing standards about ingredients and nutrition. "People tell you not to get emotionally attached to things, but sometimes it's hard not to," he says. "It's too competitive out there" to not tweak recipes.
The Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki was launched as a “gourmet sub” in 2002 and plugged in an ad featuring Subway's famous skinny man, Jared Fogel, dancing clumsily and boasting about taste. "There was a focus to try to take low-fat sandwiches and give them a lot of flavor,” says Kovachi. The limited-time sandwich quickly became a hit, helping to drive double-digit sales increases by the end of 2oo2 and earning a spot on Subway’s core menu.
While sales remained strong, there were foreseeable problems with the sandwich as consumer awareness of nutrition heightened. For one, it was obviously salty. The sauces on the sandwich also contained well-known "unnatural" ingredients such as caramel color and high fructose corn syrup. According to recent research by consulting firm AlixPartners, consumers now care more that food is low-sodium and made from familiar ingredients than about claims to be low in calories and fat.
The first target was the salt. "You’d have to be living underground not to hear about the health implications of sodium,” says Kovachi. The original six-inch sandwich had about 1,100 milligrams of sodium—the American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg per day—and in 2008, Subway set out to gradually bring that down to about 800 mg. It took five years to reach that salt target. The modified chicken strips would eventually be served on reduced-sodium bread beneath a glaze of reduced-sodium teriyaki. Together, the changes resulted in a 30 percent decrease in saltiness and the sandwich now has 770 mg of sodium. "It was a bit of a checkers game or a chess match," says Martone.
That doesn't mean things on the indulgent side are automatically ruled out. Subway did, after all, approve the 580-calorie Big Hot Pastrami Melt. "A typical burger can have 700 calories and 40 grams of fat," Kovachi says. "We try not to have sticker shock when you see our nutritionals." Or when you try to pronounce what's in them.