Menu-labeling enforcement: Lessons learned from Subway

| by S.A. Whitehead
Menu-labeling enforcement: Lessons learned from Subway

Many in the restaurant industry are — for lack of a better term — "freaking out" about the regulations that take effect May 5, 2017, requiring chain restaurants to put specific nutritional information on their menus. Granted, it is going to require some work to complete the analyses, redesign and reprint menus and even educate employees. That holds particularly true for the largest chains, which just by sheer scale,  have a fairly costly and detailed project on their hands in order to comply with the new standards. 

However, Subway proved it was possible 20 years ago when the sandwich chain first began providing guests access to nutritional information on cups, tray liners, napkins and elsewhere. The initiative has continued and now includes its website and in-store labeling. The chain's  transparency helped to make it one of the nation's favorite but also one of the most successful brand in the world. That fact was proven just recently when the annual Harris Poll EquiTrends Restaurant Brands of the Year Study put Subway at the top of the QSR heap for the sixth year in a row by naming the chain top Sandwich Shop Brand of the Year.

"Year after year, Subway has proven that it has equity staying power," said Lisa Recoussine, vice president of client solutions at Nielsen, which owns The Harris Poll. "Getting ahead of the fitness curve and being one of the first chains to use a celebrity fitness tie-in with 'The Biggest Loser' are some factors contributing to Subway's equity dominance."

In light of the coming regulations, we thought it might be helpful to bounce a few questions off Subway Global Dietitian Lanette Kovachi to give other brands the chance to learn from her experiences with menu item nutritional evaluation and labeling. 

Q: When did Subway decide to start making calories and other food nutritional information available to customers and why?
 Nineteen years ago we began posting calories and fat (in) our low-fat subs with 350 calories or less, on our cups, napkins and sneeze guards. We also made full nutrition information available on all of our sandwiches in a brochure, as well as on our website in 1998. 

In terms of our better-for-you sandwiches, we knew we had great tasting products that were also a much lighter alternative to traditional fast food. Providing this information not only helped to market our sandwiches, but it was a way to inspire our customers to eat smarter. The choice to fully disclose nutrition on all our sandwiches came naturally, as our priority has always been helping customers make informed decisions. We also began posting a full list of allergens and ingredients on (Subway's website) in 2000.

Q: How was it originally received?
I think customers already knew even 20-plus years ago that many Subway sandwiches were a better choice and posting our nutrition information backed that up. Highlighting the calories/fat of our better for you choices established for our customers that we do our best to help them make an informed choice.

Q: Do you think Subway helped give birth to the trend toward menu transparency and healthful eating?
Subway is a leader in providing complete and easily accessible nutrition information. Even before the federal menu labeling regulations, there was an assumption from diners that restaurants should have nutrition information available, and Subway has played a part in creating that expectation by making nutrition information available to customers, which we have been doing for almost 20 years. 

When I started as a dietitian for Subway 16 years ago, only a handful of major QSR restaurants employed registered dieticians and published nutrition information. Now the number of restaurants with an in-house dietitian has grown exponentially. It really is satisfying to see the restaurant industry embrace the need for making nutrition information available for their customers.  

Q: Since regulations are making transparency in this realm of growing importance — and indeed, customers now demand it— what kind of warnings, advice or helpful hints can you offer to other restaurateurs as they begin to list their nutrition information on their menus?
The most important (thing) is to use a credentialed nutrition professional, like a registered dietitian nutritionist with food regulatory experience to handle the nutrition data. Not only do they understand the regulations surrounding nutrition labeling, they also understand the nutrition composition of food and can flag inconsistencies in nutrition analysis, databases or manufacturer supplied information. 

Q: What is the biggest problem in making this information public and how do you deal with those consequences?
The biggest problem with solely displaying calories on the menu boards is that it is just one number and it does not convey the overall health or nutritional quality of a menu item. Fewer alories does not necessarily mean a better choice. For example, a 400-calorie sandwich on whole-grain bread with veggies and lean meats is a more nutritious choice than a 300-calorie cheeseburger on a white bun. We are taking steps to educate our customers about nutrition quality and promote adding veggies and whole grains to up the nutrition and calorie quality of their menu choices. 

Q: What's the biggest benefit of this kind of disclosure?
It is a great starting point to educate our customers about the nutrition content of the food they are consuming, and to draw attention to items that are excessively high in calories.

Topics: Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Health & Nutrition

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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