Ireland's Supreme Court Rules That Subway's Bread Is Too Sugary to Be Called 'Bread'

Just a couple of Subway employees making dessert.
Just a couple of Subway employees making dessert. / Dessislavapr, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you’ve spent any time poring over the nutritional facts on your bread's packaging, you've probably noticed that some loaves, rolls, and buns harbor surprisingly high amounts of sugar. Subway’s bread contains quite a bit, too—so much, in fact, that Ireland’s supreme court doesn’t even consider it bread.

The case in question was an appeal by Bookfinders Ltd.—the company in charge of Subway’s Irish franchise—which claimed that it should’ve been exempt from paying certain taxes detailed in Ireland’s Value-Added Tax Act of 1972 (VAT). The act doesn’t tax basic items like bread, tea, and milk, but it does tax what the court called “more discretionary indulgences” like pastries, chips, and chocolate.

In order for a product to qualify as “bread,” however, the amount of fat, sugar, or bread improver cannot “exceed 2 percent of the weight of flour included in the dough.” The sugar in Subway’s bread weighs five times that limit. According to The Guardian, there are 5 grams of sugar in a 6-inch Subway roll, which is more than twice what you’d consume in two digestive biscuits and just 1.4 grams less than what you’d find in a jaffa cake. (A McDonald’s Big Mac bun, interestingly enough, packs in 5.8 grams of sugar.)

Bookfinders Ltd. wasn’t actually disputing the sugar content itself. Instead, the company contended that the VAT’s use of the phrase “each ingredient” meant that Subway’s bread qualified for the tax exemption as long as it didn’t exceed the 2 percent limit for all three ingredients: fat, sugar, and bread improver. The court pushed back, arguing that there was enough context in the rest of the passage to conclude that too much of any ingredient barred the product from being considered bread.

“The function of a court interpreting legislation is not the same as that of a pedantic school teacher correcting a student’s English and perhaps inculcating an appreciation of the precise use of language,” Justice Donal O'Donnell wrote in the ruling [PDF].

Bookfinders Ltd. tried other angles, too, but to no avail. The court dismissed the appeal, and the company did not secure any refund. Though the ruling could cause other Irish sandwich vendors to double-check the sugar levels in their own products, you probably won’t see Subway changing its labels anytime soon.

“Subway’s bread is, of course, bread,” a representative told The Guardian.

[h/t The Guardian]