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Subway says a chemical also found in yoga mats will be completely phased out of its bread as of next week.

The sandwich chain has faced criticism and backlash since a food blogger petitioned Subway to remove the chemical earlier this year.

The ingredient azodicarbonamide can be found in a wide variety of products, including those served at McDonald's and Starbucks and breads sold in supermarkets. It's approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner. But the petition by Vani Hari of FoodBabe.com gained attention after Hari pointed out the chemical is also used to increase elasticity in products including yoga mats, shoe rubber, and synthetic leather.

Subway said in February that it was already in the process of removing the ingredient from its bread, and had planned to before Hari's petition raised the issue.

Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, told the AP in a phone interview that the chain had started phasing the ingredient out late last year and that the process should be complete within a week. Subway is privately held and doesn't disclose its sales figures. But it has apparently been feeling pressure from the uproar.

"You see the social media traffic, and people are happy that we're taking it out, but they want to know when we're taking it out," Pace said. "If there are people who have that hesitation, that hesitation is going to be removed."

He repeated that Subway was "happy to invite consumers back in who might've had hesitation."

Pace stressed that the removal wasn't a reaction to the petition and that the changes were already underway. The company also said it had already tested the "Azo-free bread" in four markets this past fall.

After hearing of Subway's plans to remove the chemical, Hari told USA TODAY in February, "I commend Subway for finally responding to me and now over 58,000 concerned citizens. Their swift action is a testament to what power petitions and individuals can have."

Pace said the company is "always trying to improve" and noted that the chain has also reduced sodium levels over the years and removed high-fructose corn syrup from its bread.

Hari has said she targeted Subway because of its image of serving healthy food. Hari has also called on other companies including Chick-fil-A and Kraft to remove ingredients she finds objectionable.

The sentiment is one that has been gaining traction, with more people looking to eat foods they feel are natural and examining labels more carefully. The trend has prompted numerous food makers to adjust their recipes, even as they stand by the safety of their products. Among the companies that have made changes are PepsiCo Inc., which removed a chemical from Gatorade, and ConAgra, which recently simplified the ingredients in its Healthy Choice frozen meals.

Contributing: AP

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