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The Good Way vs. The Subway

May 3, 2011

In time I will get around to talking more about the great sandwiches around the region. And there is a lot to tell. Seriously, I could probably have a dedicated blog just to the sandwiches of the Capital District.

Despite that, the draw of Subway here is strong. Holy hell, is it strong.

It’s so strong that year after year this chain that promotes itself as a healthy alternative to fast food rises to the top of the Times Union’s Best of the Capital District reader’s choice poll. And that gets me worked up.

I’ve tried rallying support around one of the better local sandwich joints, but for some reason our local citizens are loath to stuff the ballot box even in pursuit of this greater good. Well, now it’s time for a different approach.

I’m going on the offensive.

Here’s the important part. You may nod along as I detail Subway’s crimes against food. But we all know someone who goes there all the time. We all know someone who thinks Subway is a good healthful lunch alternative. I’m going to ask you to share this information with your friends and family. Help me spread the news and unveil what they have probably suspected, but have decided to conveniently ignore.

Regardless of the nutritional claims or how austerely you build your sandwich, Subway is not in the business of making healthful food.

That 9-Grain Wheat roll you got to be extra healthy? Its third ingredient is High Fructose Corn Syrup. In fact, its got more of that than it does whole-wheat flour. If you care about HFCS the sourdough is also sweetened with it.

Oddly the less healthy refined-grain Italian (white) bread, which is the base of many of their more fanciful rolls eschews HFCS for sugar. However, considering it is something that is baked fresh it sure has an awful lot of ingredients:

Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, sugar, contains less than 2% of the following: soybean oil, yeast, wheat gluten, calcium blend (calcium carbonate, vitamin d3), salt, dough conditioners (acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, potassium iodate, amylase [enzymes]), wheat protein isolate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, flavor (If you get yeast extract, salt, natural flavor).

If you get a more fanciful choice like the bread that adds Italian herbs and cheese, you will also be adding artificial colors, artificial flavors, and something called natamycin which is apparently a natural mold inhibitor.

Chicken breast strips may sound pretty healthy. After all, what could be wrong with boneless skinless chicken breast? Sure, there is an argument against factory farms and the unappetizing methods used to produce market weight chickens in short order. But even if Subway used the most ethically sourced meat they could find, I would still have a problem with this sandwich filling.

In my opinion, chicken breast strips should neither include soy protein concentrate nor chicken flavor. The chicken should taste like chicken on its own. The fact that it requires additional chicken flavor made from salt, autolyzed yeast extract, sugar, molasses, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and sodium phosphates is troubling.

It also turns out that Subway differentiates between “chicken flavor” and “chicken type flavor.” God help you if you get the chicken breast patty, because it is resigned to being treated with what sounds like the lesser of the two flavoring agents. Just in case you are curious, that would be hydrolyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, thiamine hydrochloride, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.

I can’t even count all the ingredients in the steak (but it’s well north of twenty).

It probably would never occur to you that there was artificial color in the cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses. Perhaps you might have suspected FD&C yellow #5 in the pickles and banana peppers, but maybe not. You know what makes their red wine vinaigrette red? Red #40 and blue #1. The word artificial appears in one form or another thirty-six times in their ingredient document (which details seventy-one products).

Would you have guessed that the first ingredient of Subway’s fat free honey mustard is actually HFCS. I’m looking right at the ingredients list, and I still can’t believe it myself.

And this is only just the transparent information made available to the public.

I haven’t looked deeply into “mechanically separated turkey” but I suspect it would not be pretty. In fact it sounds a lot like pink slime, for which there is no reason to think that Subway’s ground beef is devoid of this widely-used ground beef product.

The bottom line is that Subway is a national chain that sells inexpensive and highly-processed foods. They may be low in fat and they may be low in calories. The food may be inexpensive and convenient. You may even enjoy how it tastes.

But none of this fits even my loosest definition of healthy.

If you live in the Capital Region you are lucky enough to be in the midst of several great places to get delicious sandwiches. You may have a good excuse to why you eat the sandwiches at Subway, but it’s going to be hard to convince me that they are good food.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    May 3, 2011 9:40 am

    I never eat there because it is a chain and the food is gross and processed, but I never actually looked into the ingredients. Thanks for sharing this, it was just as I suspected!

  2. May 3, 2011 10:04 am

    Subway is a perfect example of how underhanded the fast food industry is. When people started questioning “what are we doing to ourselves?” in regard to McDonalds and Burger King high calorie meals, Subway became the champion of “healthy,” and, as you’ve pointed out, as far as processing and artificial ingredients, they’re just as guilty as the higher calorie alternatives.

    For convenience, I’ve found myself at Subway, ordering “grilled” chicken, and wondering why the grill marks are on one side of the plank of chicken. I’ve also wondered why their chicken doesn’t have the taste or texture of chicken that I’ve grilled on my Foreman Grill (the method of cooking I’d think would yield the closest result).

    The obvious answer is processing, and I’m glad that there are people like you out there who are willing to break things like this down and try to educate people.

    And I agree, ingredients like chicken or steak should not contain any more than that.

  3. May 3, 2011 10:24 am

    I love when someone else does the research that I’m interested in, so I don’t have to! I’ve always suspected that Subway’s ingredients aren’t as healthy as they claim (because, c’mon, most chain restaurants lie a little bit) and now I have some actual facts to back up my suspicions. Why is the food industry in the business of taking somewhat healthy things and turning them into a science experiment gone wrong? Thanks for the post, keep up the good investigative work :)

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 3, 2011 10:59 am

    I can’t believe that anyone (even Jared!) would think that Subway was healthy.

  5. May 3, 2011 11:01 am

    I’ve never been to a Subway, but I welcome the reminders of why I never should. I caution you not to dig too deeply into the process of mechanically separating a chicken or turkey. It’s not a pretty picture. This is a family blog….

  6. May 3, 2011 11:13 am

    I’ve always thought Subway’s food tasted “off” in some way, now I know why. I’m not a fan of Subway at all. Their food just doesn’t taste good.

  7. May 3, 2011 12:59 pm

    I guess this would explain some of the culinary-amnesia effect of that place. You see an ad for a Subway sandwich, and it just looks and sounds so good — but then you get one and take a bite, and you remember why you don’t usually eat Subway (’cause it tastes like crap). Apparently, the food is engineered to look good, not taste good.

    • Kerosena permalink
      May 3, 2011 1:04 pm

      Like those giant strawberries at the supermarket!

  8. Mike W permalink
    May 3, 2011 6:17 pm

    My first job as a teenager was at the local Subway, the only fast food joint in my small town. I worked there for almost two years. Considering your background in advertising, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by how many people were convinced Subway was a healthy choice. Customers ordered foot long subs, on cheesy bread, full of processed chicken breast, cheese and sugary honey mustard sauce and said with a straight face “I can’t believe I’m eating healthy!” Even when I retorted with “well…you’re not…”, most would shrug and come back again with the same outlook on Subway. When I entered college as a nutrition major (my major ultimately changed), I wrote a long paper calling out Subway on their unhealthy practices and, what I considered to be, disingenuous marketing. Subway concerns itself with calories and fat content, ignoring the how proper nutrition really begins with eating wholesome, minimally processed foods. As larger segments of the population become more concerned with where their food comes from, I believe business at Subway will suffer, perhaps forcing the company to make changes. Or they’ll just hire a new advertising agency and find new ways to convince the public their unhealthy food is, in fact, healthy. Probably the latter.

  9. May 3, 2011 11:03 pm

    This is very interesting!

    I will also argue that it is not that inexpensive. If I am making a pasta or chicken dish for dinner it is a lot cheaper than $6 or $10 (if you got a footlong sub) to just make one extra portion for lunch the next day. Also, if you made yourself a sandwich from home I am sure it would be a lot tastier and probably a lot cheaper too. That documentary “Supersize Me” made the point that although McDonald’s seems inexpensive it actually really adds up even over the course of a week compared to what you can bring from home.

    • May 4, 2011 6:28 pm

      Great point, Emily. The turkey sandwich I make for myself at home is much tastier and far more cost effective than anything I would get at Subway.

  10. May 4, 2011 6:26 pm

    Has anyone noticed that Subway stinks of rotten coldcuts?

    Actually, I don’t think rotten is the right word. Slimy coldcuts, maybe? I’m not sure. But it smells noxious. In fact, it’s coldcuts like that which made me think I hated coldcuts until I was in my mid-20s. Because most of the people I knew, if they weren’t loading up their sandwiches at home with pre-packaged garbage, were eating nasty, slimy, stinky subs from Subway or Mr. Subb or some such crappy chain.

    As an aside, I had the Cajun Bomber the other night from Andy’s, and it was heaven. It was my first sub from Andy’s – my husband and I are big fans of Genoa, which we discovered when he was working at Siena a few years ago – and it did not disappoint. A bonus, it’s a lot closer than Genoa. :) (And, additional bonus – walking distance from my new employer!)

  11. Ellen Whitby permalink
    May 4, 2011 11:05 pm

    “…but it’s going to be hard to convince me that they are good food.”

    Rather than convince you of that, I would suggest that Subway serves “processed food product that resembles food”. I’ll leave it to you to add the “good” or not, as your conscience guides you.

  12. speshulk99 permalink
    May 5, 2011 7:18 am

    There is another reason to nOT eat @ Subway imho. The main or sole perhaps supplier of meat is Hormel. More than 20 years ago, Hormel fired all of it’s union help.

  13. May 6, 2011 12:02 pm

    I’m just perplexed that this is news to some people. This stuff should not be a surprise. I wish people would educate themselves more about the food they eat.

    The other thing that annoys me is the use of the word “fresh.” As in, “considering it is something that is baked fresh it sure has an awful lot of ingredients:”
    Does Subway really bake fresh bread? I work in a bakery. We make fresh bread. There are mixers in the kitchen and we use flour, water, yeast, salt, eggs, milk powder and sometimes sugar. We put those ingredients into the mixer and watch as our dough forms, adding more of something as needed. We let our dough rise and then we work it into loaves and proof it before sliding it into our hot convection ovens. Is that what happens at Subway? Because if so, that’s fresh.

    I suspect that is not how Subway makes it’s “fresh” bread. It probably comes from a factory where it’s dubious ingredients are made into a dough like substance that’s frozen and shipped to location around the country and “baked fresh every day.”

    • May 14, 2011 4:10 am

      I assume that’s how the “fresh-baked” bread happens.

  14. June 10, 2011 12:33 am

    Daniel,

    The Wikipedia entry for “mechanically separated” turkey pretty accurately describes the process. Tiny bits of meat are strained away from inedible matter and formed into a paste. It’s not as bad as pink slime, because my understanding is that the process does not use ammonia. However, it is generally used in lower-cost and lower-quality products.

  15. June 26, 2011 7:17 pm

    Can’t believe I missed this post when it came out, because I am getting pretty incensed about the false marketing some of these chains are employing. My husband and I have our own bakery/cafe (Albany’s only committed Farm to Bakery) and actually do make everything absolutely fresh, even though doing so requires a concentration of hours within a specific time frame and management of multiple small suppliers. We get as much produce as possible for our sandwiches, salads & specialty focaccia pizzas from farmers we know personally, on a weekly basis. Our menu is small and seasonal as a result. Most of our flour & grains, all of our dairy, maple syrup, nuts, peanut butter, even our spices are sourced from NY suppliers (we get as close to Albany as possible, depending on the ingredient). It irks me to no end that Subway & other places (i.e., Panera Bread) make wholly false marketing claims about health and freshnesss (and sometimes about preservatives, GMO, hormones & antibiotics, transfat, HFCS, etc.) that undermine our sincerity and real-life, day to day ethical choices we make that aren’t always economically easy to maintain. I know that some people eating at those chains may not be likely to also be our customers, but that’s not really the point. Saying “fresh”, “healthy” or “no additives” and meaning it are two different beasts. I instinctively feel like there should be stricter rules on some of these terms, but that jumps into a whole different ballgame.

    • speshulk99 permalink
      June 27, 2011 5:11 pm

      It boggles my mind as to why people go the those places. Long time supporter of buying local, I’m with you. I work a market in Schenectady after having volunteered @ The Troy Farmer’s Market for 8 years. Supporitng local farmers, bakers, local everything is the way to support all who live here, hire here and that keeps the money here, but people live in front ot the TV, and it all has to be fast (its not), it all has to be cheap (its not) when one factors in the hidden health costs as in got diabetes type 2. And one more thing, the American public has not clue about GMO’s, in general. Which bakery are you associated with, I would like to try your products? I live in the Helderbergs but happen to be in the flatlands a lot. Keep up the good fight and work. Sincerely, speshulk99

  16. June 28, 2011 11:02 am

    Thanks for your verbal support @Speshulk99 – My husband and I are All Good Bakers (160 Quail St. Albany). We’d love to see you when you’re in town!

  17. trusted commenter permalink
    August 16, 2012 12:56 am

    Still, as a vegetarian and aspiring vegan with little time or private transportation, it’s been a huge blessing to be able to get a fast and satisfying meal anyplace anytime. In terms of practicality, there’s no comparable alternative. So you get some chemicals and sugar? Big deal; eschewing chemicals and sugar is beyond my capacities as a USA denizen and there are other things far worse, ethically.

  18. August 16, 2012 1:09 pm

    Thanks for the Subway bashing, not sure if any of the food still contains HFCS. For an updated product ingredient list here is the link …http://www.subway.com/Nutrition/Files/usProdIngredients.pdf

    • August 16, 2012 2:43 pm

      John: I appreciate the link and I’ll take some time to look at it in more detail soon. But a cursory glance tells me that HFCS can still be found in Subway’s:
      – Teriyaki Glazed Chicken Strips
      – Chipotle Southwest Sauce
      – Fat Free Honey Mustard
      – Fat Free Italian Dressing
      – Peanut Butter Cookie

      And Yellow #5 can be found in your:
      – Banana Peppers
      – Pickles
      – Raspberry Cheesecake

    • Vincent permalink
      August 18, 2012 7:25 pm

      Thanks for the link .. that proves you’re still bunked?

  19. August 17, 2012 7:26 pm

    Interesting…..I didn’t realize Chicken actually had an ingredient list…”

    “CHICKEN BREAST PATTY
    Chicken breast with rib meat, water, seasoning (corn syrup solids, vinegar
    powder [maltodextrin, modified corn starch and tapioca starch, dried vinegar], brown sugar, salt ,dextrose, garlic powder, onion powder, chicken type flavor [hydrolyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, thiamine hydrochloride, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate]), sodium phosphates.”

    Maybe it’s just me ;)

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