7. What is in Subway’s Bread?

On today’s episode, we will discuss the recent news that a court in Ireland has decided Subway’s bread is not bread, as well as looking at some of the implications

(If you can’t see the podcast player click here to listen!)

To scan (v) – to look through a text quickly in order to find a piece of information that you want or to get a general idea of what the text contains

Scan the newspaper article quickly and make a note of the main points.

intriguing (adj) – very interesting because of being unusual or mysterious

She has a very intriguing personality 

customisable (adj) – used to describe something that you can change according to a customer’s or user’s particular needs:

We offer customizable ringtones for your phone.

accustomed (adj) – familiar with something:

She quickly became accustomed to his messy ways

savoury (adj) – Savoury food is salty or spicy and not sweet in taste:

Pie can be sweet or savoury

To rule (v) – to decide officially 

The government has ruled that the refugees must be deported.

provision (n) – a statement within an agreement or a law that a particular thing must happen or be done

We have inserted certain provisions into the treaty to safeguard foreign workers

common sense (n ) – good sense and sound judgement in practical matters

Windsurfing is perfectly safe as long as you have/use some common sense

Last week, as I was scanning through the Guardian newspaper during my break from work, an intriguing headline stood out to me. “Subway bread is not bread”. Well, if it’s not bread, what is it? 

Subway. One of the biggest fast food restaurants in the world. It has over 40,000 restaurants in 100 countries, more than McDonalds, KFC or any other competitors, and is famous for selling submarine sandwiches, or subs. Although it has probably been over a year since I last stepped foot into a subway, I was certainly a regular customer back in my days as a student. The fully customisable menu, allows you to choose whatever salad, sauce, filling, and bread you desire. Yet is this bread, actually bread?

According to the Supreme Court of Ireland, no, subway bread is not bread. But why is the Irish court deciding a case on bread? Surely they have more important things to do. And why is Subway bread not bread? If you asked me, it looks, smells, tastes and is even made like bread? So what is going on here? Well let’s start with why is subway bread not bread. The reason is simple; sugar. Subway bread contains close to 10% sugar, which is 5 times the legal limit for bread sold in Ireland. This might surprise some of you listening. After living in Asia for almost 3 out of the last 5 years, I have also become accustomed to sweet bread. As a Taiwanese student of mine said to me the other day, maybe all bread in Taiwan would not be considered bread in Ireland. But in Europe, bread is normally a savoury food, not sweet, and is considered a basic part of our diets. 

So this brings us to why a court in Ireland is ruling on this issue? And not just any court. The Supreme court, or in other words, the most important and powerful court in the whole of Ireland. There is a famous saying in English, which i think originally comes from American founding father Benjamin Franklin, that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ This court case was of course a result of taxes. 

In Ireland staple foods are exempt from a tax, known as Value Added Tax. A staple food, food staple, or simply a staple, is a food that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a large amount of a standard diet. However, Ireland’s Value-Added Tax Act of 1972 distinguishes between staple foods – things like bread, tea, coffee, cocoa, milk and “preparations or extracts of meat or eggs” – and “more discretionary indulgences” such as, chocolate, pastries, crisps, cakes and roasted nuts. Simply put, in Ireland essential products are not taxed, while non-essential products are taxed.

Importantly, however, this Law also contains a strict provision that the amount of sugar in bread, “shall not exceed 2% of the weight of flour included in the dough”. And at 10%, the amount of sugar in subway bread is clearly way above the tax free limit. Actually this is not the first time Subway bread has been in the news in recent years! You might remember the ‘yoga mat’ chemical scandal. Subway used, and still uses in some places, a chemical known as azodicarbonamide in its bread to make the flour white. However, this ingredient is also commonly used in the manufacture of yoga mats and carpet underlay and has been banned by the European Union and Australia from use in food products. 

Moreover, this isn’t the first time food and tax have become a legal problem. If any of you have spent time in the UK, you might have heard of a Jaffa cake (a chocolate orange flavoured biscuit/cake thing). UK tax law distinguishes between biscuits and cakes, with the Jaffa cake hovering along the borderline. Ultimately, Jaffa cakes were classed as cakes for tax purposes.

Final Thought

If Subway bread is not bread, what is it? Is it cake? Or pastry? Or something new? Furthermore, let’s think about what a sandwich is. The dictionary defines a Sandwich as  “a food typically consisting of vegetables, sliced cheese or meat, placed on or between slices of bread, or more generally any dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for another food type.” The key word here is bread. So if Subway bread is not actually bread, then does this mean that the world’s most famous sandwich shop doesn’t actually sell sandwiches? 

Do the ingredients matter the most? There are thousands of different types of bread, made using different ingredients and different processes all around the world. DOes adding extra sugar really change the product? I would argue no, it doesn’t. Subway bread is bread. And I think even the judges in Ireland would agree with me. There is a difference between common sense definitions and legal or tax based definitions. While Subway might have to pay tax, I would still consider it to be bread.

What about you? What do you think?

Comprehension Questions

Q. What percentage of Subway bread is Sugar?

A. 10%

Q. What country’s supreme court ruled on this decision?

A. Ireland

Q. What does VAT mean?

A. Value Added Tax

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