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

  • Pushbutton

    Yep! Just confirming why we went vegetarian. I have eaten at Subway – usually a vegetarian wrap with avacardo. Still thank you for all the useful information about the bread etc..At the end of the day it is all about money and preservatives make money.

    Just love to eat my home grown vegies!

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  • Harmony

    Wow. I didn’t realize Subway had surpassed McDonald’s. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703386704576186432177464052.html
    I guess that’s what I get for graduating from college and not keeping up with big corporation news. Will “Subworld” replace “McWorld,” she asked facetiously?

  • Nancy

    The Heart Association logo is misleading. Food companies pay a fee to be included in the testing. And since the foods they approve simply meet federal guidelines, what good does that do us? The government allows all kinds of stuff that’s bad for us. Lots of eye-opening revelations in the book Food Politics by Marion Nestle.

  • such b.s. — seriously…find something better to do with your time!

  • Jessica T

    We don’t eat at Subway anymore because their food tastes gross. (I don’t like eating at any fast food place, regardless, but I can see how some may think Subway is an exception.)

  • Joanne Cannella

    Thank you for letting us know the real dirt. I thought Subway was mostly safe. I am very disappointed.

  • Scothibb

    I wouldn’t eat at subway (or any fast food joint) if you payed me to. I cringed when you took a bite of that salad! There HAS to be something else in that avocado. Even with lime in it, it turned brown within 30minutes, especially after being frozen.

    • Michele F.

      I’m pretty sure you want your avocado to turn brown. It’s a natural thing and probably means it has no preservatives.

    • Deborah

      Subway is a fast food in my opinion. Did you know that Subways marketing tactics was to follow McDonald’s lead? Look around you. Everywhere you see a McDonald’s a Subway is within a few blocks away. Yup, they pretty much piggy backed off of the McDonald’s marketing research. Pretty clever idea hmmm? If I had the money I would do the same but make sure it was a organic healthy food restaurant that only serves non-processed foods.

  • Dee Ferguson

    That salad is still probably filled with not only non-local veggies. but GMO’s also, right?

  • Dee Ferguson

    LOL I cringed too, and I think so did she!..Just knowing people have breathed, and talked, and maybe even coughed or sneezed over my food in a resturant, (esp. buffets’) is enought o make me ‘ralf’! ..And wash everything I eat at HOME!

  • Jennifer

    How can I find deli type meats like ham and turkey for sandwiches= and bacon- with low or NO nitrates? thanks!!

    • Linja

      Jennifer, There are some in supermarkets. Try Hormel Natural Choice® – 100% natural meat with zero preservatives.

    • Leah

      Trader Joes!! There’s LOTS of options that are nitrate-free.. as well as bacon that is nitrate/nitrate free:)

    • Kristy

      Trader Joes’s has lunchmeat without nitrates, but you have to read the labels to make sure. Some of their brands contain preservatives. Whole Foods is expensive but they have a large variety and it’s all preservative free!!

    • Susan

      Applegate Farm brand is in most grocery stores around here (Rhode Island); they sell pre-packaged deli meat, cheese, bacon and sausage. If you can find any local farmers, say at a farmer’s market, that would be great too! We are really lucky to have many local farmers in little Rhody!

    • Sandy

      Buy a chicken, put it in the oven, bake it, cut it up and make a sandwich. Freeze and use at will. Save money, use your kitchen. It takes as much time as driving to the store, parking, shopping, buying plastic wrapped food, taking the extra trash out… you get my drift.

    • Marcy

      There’s also Organic Prairie, they sell deli type meats that have no nitrates added. I get them all the time for my family.

  • Patrick Wells

    Great article. But I happened to notice that you had not one link to any sort of reference. Unless you have a high level laboratory in your house with which you can isolate all these ingredients you must have gotten this info from somewhere. Where might this somewhere be?

  • Joe

    Food snobbery is really becoming popular! Lighten up, you’re not going to die or get sick eating at subway.

    • jesse

      GMO’s have NEVER been proven safe for human consumption.

      • Bob

        They’ve also never been proven harmful. The fact is, genetic modification has been going on for centuries, by using selective breeding techniques. Doing it in a lab is simply faster, and offers more control over the results. Genetic material cannot be absorbed by eating it, it can’t do you any harm, else we wouldn’t be able to eat anything at all. The issues that ARE raised have nothing to do with consuming the food, but with making sure that the plants modified aren’t too hardy and too fast growing, because they could spread beyond the farm and start pushing out indigenous species.

        • Reanna

          For some of us, the use of genetically modified food isn’t so much about the “breeding” techniques but about the unethical abuses of power giant corporations like Monsanto inflict upon small farmers over their precious patented seeds. Lisa has referenced the documentary Food, Inc. as something to watch that makes it easy to understand the massive corruption of big business, Big Ag, and politics and politicians. My family is very food conscious and very empathetic.

          We all sat around my during my son’s 14th birthday reading out loud Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. And we enjoyed the whole wheat chocolate cake from this website, too. But as it was a treat I made my delicious vanilla butter cream frosting, heavy on the butter and cream. Yum!

        • Susan Swain

          wow, Bob, you can’t equate selective breeding with inserting genes from other life forms (viruses, bacteria) into plants. it’s simply not the same thing. also, you must not be up on the latest research that shows we do absorb dna particles from the food we eat, which influence our genetic expression. “you are what you eat” isn’t just an expression.

        • Marcy

          There’s really less control over the results. They shoot the genetic material into the cell and hope for the desired results. There is massive evidence that proves GMO’s are harmful to animals and humans in a myriad of ways. Didn’t you hear about the GMO grasses in Texas that started spontaneously producing Cyanide gasses? http://www.foodrenegade.com/mutated-gmo-grass-makes-cyanide-kills-cattle-2/

  • Andrea

    Chipolte???? Really???? Are you people crazy? It’s owned by McDonalds!!! Nuff said!!

    • Kate

      It looks like it was at one point, but it no longer is owned by McDonald’s. Regardless, unless they are outright lying on their ingredient lists, it’s still much better food than most other options.

    • Deborah

      Chipotle was once owned through a small private company. They believed in using fresh local ingredients that helped farmers markets. When they sold their company to McDonalds it was in the contract that McDonalds would adhere to the same quality and keep running the business the same way. Why do you think Chipotle isn’t all over the U.S. like McDs is? Since then I believe McDonalds has sold its Chipotle chain to another business.

  • Jill

    Thank you for this post! Have you reviewed Jason’s Deli? If so can you post the link? Thanks!!

  • Ugh! We are on vacation and will have to eat out in order to get home this weekend. I have a $25 Subway gift card that we were going to use for our lunch on the road. Now I don’t ever want to go there again! I love your series, but y’all are ruining all of the “better” fast food options that I would occassionally take my family to.

  • susan

    was it really necessary for you to get a plastic bag?

    • No it wasn’t. I was waiting for someone to point that out. I was a bit distracted while I was being filmed, usually I specifically say not to give me a plastic bag (if you run into me at the grocery store, you’ll notice I always bring my own). I wish they would have asked if I wanted one, because then I would have been prompted to say no, instead they give one to all customers regardless if they are eating in or taking out.

      • Traceyp

        I have actually said “I don’t need a bag” &, several times, I have received a response of “It’s ok I’ll give you one”. Totally confuses me. Someone mentioned they have veggie patties now…wonder what bounties are in that???

        • Elizabeth

          I worked at Subway for a while, and supposedly, the veggie patty is mostly mushroom based. However, we were required to warm it up, or toast it before giving it to a customer (if they didn’t want it toasted, we would microwave the patty, then put it on the bread). Honestly, I hated it when people ordered it. It smelled absolutely awful, and I wanted to gag just smelling it.

  • Leah

    Stop ruining the eating-out foods I love! LOL! No, no really. I’m thankful for the information :) But man. There is no inexpensive restaurant left! ;)

  • Karrie Smith

    All ham has nitrates in it. A lot of food has preservatives in it or it would rot two days after you buy it. You can find anything unhealthy if you pick it apart. MSG doesn’t kill anyone. ALL things in EXCESS can be harmful to your health. You make it sound like a subway sub will kill you, when it’s still probably better for you than any fast-food hamburger.

    ONE thing does NOT CAUSE CANCER. Any time an article suggests that one thing causes cancer, AND gives a percentage, I think you are full of bullsh*t. Are you telling me that you interviewed a tumor and asked it what made it form? Because THAT is what that statement says to me. Every single person in the world has cancer in their body. Your body usually recognizes and takes care of it before it becomes a problem. I’m not sure about the bread and the chemical that is banned in other countries. I’m sure that formula will probably be changed, and that is probably the only thing in this article that everyone should be concerned about. Too bad you didn’t just focus on that, and maybe you could be taken seriously, instead of another sensationalist journalist. Karrie Smith, RN, BSN

    • This post does not suggest MSG is directly killing anyone or one thing causes cancer. The percentage was simply citing the World Cancer Research Fund study and Harvard. It is important to indicate the risks of consuming processed meat.

    • jomomma

      everybody has cancer?? REALLY? RN, BSN lol please, I’m the President myself and its true because I put words on my screen! Please

  • Noel

    There’s no such thing as “nitrate free” bacon. There is a loophole in USDA regs that allow bacon cured with celery juice or celery salt (which is almost pure nitrate) to be marketed as having no nitrates. While you’re avoiding the nitrate filled bacon and filling up on the veggies, remember that all plants have nitrates. Nitrogen is what makes plants leafy. There’s as much nitrate in a leaf of romaine lettuce as a slice of bacon.

    Also, one of the cooking mags (I think it was Fine Cooking) recently tested various brands of bacon for nitrates and found that some of the “nitrate free” ones actually had more nitrates than the regular bacon.

    Having said that, you’re a brave soul to have done this experiment – you couldn’t pay me enough to eat at Subway.

  • Steven

    My son used to work at Subway. He was ordered by his boss if any (so called food) tomatoes, lettuce etc. had any mold on it,or rotten spots on it he was to cut it off and to use the remaining portions on the sandwiches. This upset him so much he had to quit.
    He also worked at Taco Bell and had many horror stories about that place too.

    • Linda

      “tomatoes, lettuce etc. had any mold on it,or rotten spots on it ”

      In other words, if the tomatoes, lettuce etc. was real instead of preservative-laced?

  • bummed out

    wow, this is really EYE OPENING for me, and super disappointing :( , thanks for the article tho!! we eat there everyday for breakfast, i get the eggwhite and english muffin, makes me wonder what is in it too :( will have to go look that up.. it is very sad how the world is going, we are all going to be full of cancer if they keep it up :((

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