At Subway, Customers Really Aren't Eating as "Fresh" As They Think

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 2:14 PM EDT

With its business booming, the Subway sandwich chain is about to pass McDonald's as the fast food chain with the most stores worldwide -- it already holds that crown in the U.S. -- and it was recently named the number one franchise opportunity by Entrepreneur magazine. Much of this is a testament to the company's healthy messaging campaign and its accompanying "Eat Fresh" tagline. Because everyone know that sandwiches are fresher (whatever that means) than previously frozen hamburgers and french fries, right?

Well, not if you actually look at the ingredients in Subway's food. McDonald's has drawn heaps of criticism for the alleged poor quality of its food (particularly in movies like SuperSize Me and Fast Food Nation), but Subway is really no different. The sliced turkey and ham may not have been frozen like hockey pucks before they serve it to you, but it's loaded down with artificial ingredients -- bulking agents, fillers, processing aids, preservatives and the like.

Let's start with the bread, which is baked in the stores, emitting a distinct and lingering odor even outside. The 9-grain wheat, white and sourdough varieties are made with goodies like sodium stearoyl lactylate and ammonium sulfate, which are used as a dough conditioners, and azodicarbonamide, a bleaching chemical most commonly employed in the production of foamed plastics. In the UK, azodicarbonamide has been classified as a substance that can cause asthma when used in an industrial setting. Yummy.

Then there's the meat. It's a processed concoction of actual meat and lots of water that's held together by things like modified food starch and soy protein concentrate, and then goosed with artificial flavorings. If it's chicken, or "oven roasted chicken strips", why does it need "chicken type flavor" made from autolyzed yeast extract and hyrolyzed corn gluten? One possible reason is that ingredients like autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed soy protein are stand ins for that enormously effective flavor enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate) since they also contain the glutamate that gives foods a burst of meaty flavor.

The reality is that this is the way most processed food is made these days, whether in the supermarket or restaurant chains. But advertising something as "fresh" carries the implication of it being wholesome and straight from the farm. It's possible to make mass produced food without lots of unpronounceable chemicals that at best offer no nutritional benefit (witness Pizza Hut's introduction of its Natural pizza and Chipotle's offerings), but it does often make food more expensive, though not by much. Consumers will ultimately have to decide if it's worth it.

Image by Flickr user keaggy.com