Food Babe Investigates: Is Subway Real Food?

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This is a guest post from Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe).


Subway is the single largest chain restaurant in the world. That means you’ve probably eaten there at some point in your lifetime and if you are like me could possibly have 10 of these restaurants within a 1 mile radius of your house.

But is eating at America’s favorite fast food chain really eating real food?

Subway would certainly like you to think so. With their slogan “Eat Fresh,” marketing with avocados and a guy who lost hundreds of pounds eating their famous sub sandwiches, it’s easy to get duped.

You may also feel tricked when you see a little heart logo, indicating a menu item at Subway is “heart healthy.” Just last week it was announced that the American Heart Association (AHA) has endorsed several menu items at Subway and added the heart logo to indicate which ones.

At every Subway on the “sneeze guard” glass they display one version of their nutritional information – the infamous “6 grams of fat or less” menu. This menu includes calories, fat grams, and that new little heart logo, but doesn’t display anything about the ingredients. Doubting that Subway or the AHA would actually ever create a real food information guide for you, I decided it was time to do this myself. Below are the “6 grams or less” menu items and critical real food information you should know about each choice.

Let’s take a closer look.

  • Subway definitely keeps it fresh and I figured out how. Every single one of their items on the “6 grams or less” menu has preservatives to keep it …well…fresh! Sure Subway makes your meal right in front of you, but what is really happening behind the scenes? Boxes of already cut up and prepackaged processed foods and chemical additives are being shipped from Big Food industry factories to each location.
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  • The 9 grain wheat bread might look and smell freshly baked but it contains close to 50 ingredients including refined flours, dough conditioners, hidden MSG, refined sugars, etc. Could bread this processed ever be real food? Certainly not, when it includes a chemical ingredient called azodicarbonamide, which is banned as a food additive in the U.K., Europe, and Australia, and if you get caught using it in Singapore you can get up to 15 years in prison and be fined $450,000. Azodicarbonamide is more commonly used in the production of foamed plastics, however, it is allowed in the United States as a food additive, a flour bleaching agent, and a dough conditioner that improves elasticity of bread. The U.K. has recognized this ingredient as a potential cause of asthma if inhaled, and advises against its use in people who have sensitivity to food dye allergies and other common allergies in food, because azodicarbonamide can exacerbate the symptoms. Let’s not forget it only takes 4 or 5 simple ingredients to make REAL whole-wheat bread including flour, yeast, salt, water, and maybe honey.

  • Three sandwiches on this menu, along with several other menu items not listed, are comprised of processed meats and filled with nitrates and forms of MSG. The consumption of nitrates need to be taken very seriously. Nitrates are frequently converted into nitrosamines, which have been proven to increase the risk of disease dramatically. The latest research from World Cancer Research Fund declared that “processed meat is too dangerous for human consumption.” Studies have shown it may only take 1.8 ounces of processed meat (about half of what is in a typical 6 inch sub) daily to increase the likelihood of cancer by 50%heart disease by 42% and diabetes by 19%. I still know people who eat Subway for lunch everyday, but I’m glad I don’t know anyone on the actual Subway Diet. Sheesh. I can’t imagine what their percentage would be, could you?
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  • Can you believe the American Heart Association is now putting their seal of approval behind these processed meat based Subway menu items? WOW. After all these studies that show an increase in heart disease? Is this a joke? Even the processed turkey meat that seems harmless because it doesn’t contain nitrates is full of preservatives, chemical flavorings, and carrageenan. I wrote about carrageenan last month after the Cornucopia Institute revealed a study that once the food grade version of carrageenan is ingested it turns into a carcinogen in your digestive system.

  • Preservatives and even artificial colors are added to many of their “fresh” vegetable offerings – like the banana peppers and pickles. The ingredients for the black olives unveiled a new additive I learned about, “ferrous gluconate,” which is an iron based preservative that helps keep olives black.
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  • While the “6 grams or less” menu says the totals don’t include cheese or salad dressings, it is important to know that some of the cheeses offered at subway also have artificial colors, preservatives, and even cellulose that’s made from wood pulp.
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  • Two of the healthiest sounding salad dressings were actually the worst based on my analysis. Fat free honey mustard and the red vinaigrette both have corn syrup, artificial colors, preservatives, and other chemical additives.

To top it off, the majority of foods at Subway have been conventionally sourced and probably include pesticides, antibiotics, and/or growth hormones. In my research, I didn’t find one single organic ingredient or menu item available at over 36,000 stores. Even the lemon juice comes in a pre-packaged squirt pack filled with preservatives. Because of this I haven’t consciously ever considered going to a Subway in the last 7 years.

Last weekend, I broke this streak and went into a Subway in search of real food. I have to admit the thought of going into a Subway and ordering off the menu was a little bit daunting, but I decided this was the best way to get the answers to my questions, like whether or not their avocado was really fresh or not. Could it be possible for me to order something and actually take a bite without squirming? Going against my Eat With Your Dollars philosophy and purchasing something from the “bad guys” went against every bone in my body. But I did it.

Watch it all unfold in the video below. Everything at Subway may not be “fresh” but if you are ever stuck on a deserted island and this was the only place you could eat… now you know what to order.

Special thanks to Nicole Galuski for filming

P.S. You can check out my favorite “fast food” sandwich I am eating now and how to get it here.

Vani HariVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on FoodBabe.com. She teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. To follow Vani, check her out on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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558 comments to Food Babe Investigates: Is Subway Real Food?

  • Pamella

    Wow! Boy has this opened my eyes. I’ve also been one of those who don’t eat out at fast food much and Subway was my “safe” place to eat. Now it is apparently not the safest place for me or my family to go to. Packing lunches seems to be the only real safe was to eat on the go.

  • This is a fantastic post!!! I have always thought Subway did a great (marketing) job disguising their so-called “fresh food” as healthy. Love how you broke it down. Sharing now!

  • Addie Wieland

    Hello. First I really love both of your blogs and have tried out many of your reciepes. I appreciate the time you took to write this post but to be honest it isn’t very helpful. Pretty much after being subscribers to both of your blogs I learned most of the fast food restaruants are not healthy and you really have to read between the lines with advertising. I know all that delicious food I love “chik-fil-a” is not good for me. So I have stopped eating at all of those places. In my opinion with every behavior it is way easier to substitute a behavior rather than completely delete it. So something which I think would be more helpful than telling us what we already know is researching the fast food that is good for you (does it exsist!!). And maybe this post is for people who don’t know (but come on you really think all Subway’s food follows real food standards) but something I would really appreciate is where to spend my dollars because I know where I shouldn’t. Thanks!!

  • Kristin

    Yikes, we try to avoid fast food as often as possible, down to packing homemade lunches/snacks when we travel. Do you have any suggestions for where we could stop in a pinch when we needed an actual fast/kid friendly restaurant? Also, if you had the choice between organic whipping cream with carrageenan (organic valley) and non-organic without it, what would you choose?

    • I would probably choose neither, until I found a better alternative. What are you making with the whipping cream? Lisa shared some fast “real food” choices on the road on her Facebook page today – check it out. If you still need more, let me know!

  • Sally

    Thank you for your link to this article. I enjoy the Food Babe’s input, but it is always a little negative and extreme for me. we do grow all we eat, or buy from a neighbor. I understand there are so many people than cannot do this. I would prefer to see their kids in Subway instead of some other places. Somehow those vegies are still better than french fries????? Thank you again to both of you.

  • Marcie

    I do appreciate this info, however I would really appreciate some info on places we CAN find real food. How about Chipotle? What can I get from Whole Foods that is ready to eat when I am on the road. Sometimes eating out is a must and that salad from Subway just wouldn’t cut for my family and I. We have tried the Bistro boxes from Starbucks and while they are not real food they are a lesser evil, I think.

  • Sarah

    Let me start by saying that in general, I agree with you. I don’t think Subway is necessarily healthy or fresh, and I don’t particularly like eating it (probably haven’t in about 4 years).

    However, I am a PhD-level scientist, with expertise in molecular biology and specifically cancer research, and it worries me that some of the claims being made here simply are not founded. For example, you say that “The latest research from World Cancer Research Fund declared that ‘processed meat is too dangerous for human consumption.’” I have looked high and low on the internet, and searched through the WCRF report entitled ‘Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective’ and there is no such declaration there or anywhere on their website that I can find. They simply say processed meat has been linked to increased risk of SOME cancer types, and should be avoided, which is very different from saying it’s not fit for human consumption! If you are going to quote a source, it has got to be accurate, and as far as I can tell, the WCRF never said this directly, which is how it is written (the link you provide is not to their website).

    If you want to avoid alienating readers and keep people on your side, you can’t just go overboard and sensationalize everything. These kinds of claims need to be well-researched and based on real scientific findings and recommendations. I don’t have time to thoroughly look into the other claims being made here, but finding something like this makes me question the whole post, even though I know it was well-intentioned, and in general I agree with the conclusion, which is a shame.

    • Hi Sarah – I appreciate you taking the time to comment on your concerns. To clarify, I am simply quoting the article I referenced who made that declaration after reviewing the WCRF studies … I wasn’t referring to anything specific in the report that you mentioned. If you have an issue with that quote, please feel free to take it up with that source. I suppose I could have gone in detail about the varying types of cancer and the percentage, but that was not the intent of the article and I am certainly not a cancer research scientist. I think to most people (me included), cancer is cancer and want to avoid any type of cancer as much as possible.

      • realist

        I think you did not address some of Sarah’s concerns.. You write a blog about food and claim to be the voice of truth regarding the food sources you write about… if you’re getting your truth from sources that are a) gathering info from the original source and summarizing the findings; b)misinterpreting those findings; and c)promoting their misinterpreted findings.. how can what you think be trusted? You’ve proven to be outspoken about food quality which is awesome, but you’ve also proven yourself to be willing to use fraudulent sources to further your goals… it’s sad that so many people with good intentions are blinded by their lust to prove their own agenda.

  • Erryn

    I am a whole food eater but there are times we just do not want to cook or we are on the road and well we do settle for Subway. Don’t you think it is better than some of the other really bad options? It is just life to have to occasionally go out. Are there any options? And if not…is it really going to hurt if you are going there maybe a couple times a month?

  • katy

    Do you have any suggestions for a good deli meat to eat while pregnant???? I want a darn sandwhich so bad but I am so worried about the effects it would have. I live near a whole foods, trader joes, sprouts or Mother’s. Any of those places sell the deli meat I can have??? Thanks!

    • Juliana

      Yes, but just make sure to flip it over a few times on a hot skillet before you eat it (pregnancy books stay to avoid it because of listeria risk, and getting it steaming hot kills any of that bacteria). I am sure Whole Foods would have good options; I am not familiar with Sprouts or Mother’s. Our TJs has naturally processed deli meats, but the meat isn’t organic to start with. Better than Oscar Meyer, but you can probably find something better. Even the best local, organic, pasture-raised, naturally processed, small-batch-cured deli meats could have listeria, so I’d start with looking for the best product you can find, and then make sure you get it steaming hot for a few seconds before you eat it. Our natural foods coop sells Applewood Organics (I think the brand is), and their poultry doesn’t have any nitrates — I am not thrilled about it, but I think it’s decent, health-wise. If “celery seed extract” is in the ingredients, that contains nitrates, although they are naturally derived and don’t make me sick the way other nitrates do.

  • Miranda

    Just wanted to tell you how much I love these posts. You are shedding light on a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought of.

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