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What is bread? You might as well ask, who's BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music? But Ireland's Supreme Court has considered the question raised by the case of a Subway sandwich. NPR's Alina Selyukh tore into this story.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: For a few confused, bizarre moments in year 2020, Subway bread took center stage on the Internet when Ireland's Supreme Court ruled that it was too sugary to be considered bread for tax purposes. That last bit got lost in the online discourse.
LILIAN CHIBALE: I've seen someone tweeting about the sugar content is so high it's basically like a cake.
SELYUKH: Did Subway really sweeten its bread like cake? Lilian Chibale in Dublin thought this was very funny because not a lot of people seemed shocked at the possibility. She took to Twitter because she goes to Subway for cookies.
CHIBALE: White chocolate and blackberry one, I think - oh, God, it's so good.
SELYUKH: And so she wondered...
CHIBALE: If Subway bread is actually cake 'cause of all that sugar, then, OK, what's going on in the cookies? Like, wait (laughter).
SELYUKH: Comments like this have poured in, questioning Subway's choices but also remembering other times when politicians and lawyers hashed out how many servings of vegetable are in pizza sauce, if Pringles chips are potatoes, or whether burritos are sandwiches.
I looked for someone who could explain the Subway case and incidentally found someone who thinks a lot about how much sugar can be in bread.
DERMOT O'BRIEN: My name is Dermot O'Brien. I am a tax consultant.
SELYUKH: O'Brien's job involves a surprising amount of snacking. He tracks what types of products get taxed as fancier foods and which don't because they are staples that the Irish government wants to keep affordable, like donuts versus bread. And that's the kernel of the Subway case. Fourteen years ago, one franchisee argued they shouldn't have to pay tax on some of their sandwich bread. But authorities said its sugar content was 10% of the weight of the flour, five times more than the bread standard. Fast-forward to now, Ireland's Supreme Court agrees, ruling Subway's rolls weren't technically bread. O'Brien says it's a constant push and pull, like when cheese gets mixed into bread dough.
O'BRIEN: And the revenues say, well, actually, that doesn't qualify as bread there because nobody mentions cheese in our little table.
SELYUKH: Bread with cheese is a cheese?
O'BRIEN: It doesn't have to be a cheese. It's just not a bread. Because it's a bakery product, it then defaults into confectionary. And so with...
SELYUKH: ...So bread with cheese is a cake?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, pretty much, yeah.
SELYUKH: Ironically, long before Subway's case came up toast, the Irish government changed the law, allowing more sugar in bread. Subway lost the court battle but won the bread war. Bread historian William Rubel says changes like that track with our tastes, too. We're craving more and more punched-up flavors - more salt, sugar, fat.
WILLIAM RUBEL: Every choice that the baker makes - the kind of grain, does it crispy crust, an open crumb with giant holes, or very fine like a bagel - all of those are cultural choices. So we're in charge. And these terms change slowly over time like all language.
SELYUKH: He has never had a Subway sandwich but says any way you slice it, it's good to be generous with other people's food choices. Maybe let them eat cake - I mean, bread. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.