Every healthy woman has been there: You're on a road trip and you're so hungry you feel dizzy. You pull into a rest stop, far from your fridge or your favorite farm-to-table joint, and your choices for lunch are fast food, fast food, and, yup, more fast food. If there's a Subway in sight, we're going to wager you'll pick it every time.
With its "eat fresh" claims, weight-loss poster-boy Jared, and a partnership with the Biggest Loser, Subway certainly has a reputation as the healthy alternative to burger-and-fry chains. Over the past three years, Subway has reduced the sodium in its low-fat sandwiches by an average of 28%. It boasts a line of lower-cal "Fresh Fit" sandwiches, and their build-your-own option allows you to pile on veggies and forsake high-fat toppings (at least if you're having a strong-willpower kind of day.)
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But are Subway's "fresh, nourishing ingredients," as the company's website describes them, really as healthy as they sound? Calories are not the only measure of healthfulness, and our investigation reveals that understanding Subway's ingredient lists practically requires an advanced degree in chemistry. To get an idea what's in your sub, click through our assessment of 10 "healthy" Subway meals under 400 calories.
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A good source of lean protein, turkey is the do-gooder of the deli meats. A 6-inch sub of turkey on 9- grain wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and red onions has only 280 calories and 3.5 g of fat. But it also contains 810 mg of sodium, which is more than a third of your daily max. But what about the actual ingredients? You can feel good about the vegetables, since the lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions are fresh. The bad news? The 12-ingredient processed turkey breast is packed with preservatives, including mold inhibitors and thickening agents like modified food starch and carrageenan. It's browned in refined soybean oil, which, unless labeled organic (which it's not), is likely made from genetically modified soy.
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The bread, meanwhile, contains 41 ingredients. (Most breads baked at home or at a healthy bakery can be made with about five--total.) In there, you'll find diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides--a dough conditioner that is forbidden in any product sold at Whole Foods Market--and azodicarbonamide, another dough conditioner that is banned in Europe and Australia.
Swap it for: a turkey sandwich on a real whole-wheat roll, with Asiago cheese, apple, chutney, lettuce, and slice almonds, all for about 400 calories.
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With 470 calories, this tuna sandwich on 9-grain wheat doesn't qualify as a Fresh Fit choice. But if you get it on a salad, it's only 290 calories--and it's one of the simplest, healthiest choices on the menu. Just four ingredients go into the tuna salad--and they're all ones you would expect to be there, namely tuna, mayonnaise, water, and salt. (However, the preservative calcium disodium EDTA is added.) But be sure to check out the asterisk: "Tuna in Minnesota and Florida may contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein," which often contains MSG.
Swap it for: a Tuna Niçoise salad with a whole-wheat roll, which satisfies carb and omega-3 cravings much more safely for 390 calories.
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Subway's selling point with this 380-calorie sandwich is the fat content: only 4.5 g for all that flavorful bliss. But where the cut the fat, they packed in the sugar (18 g worth) and sodium (900 mg). Subway's chicken strips, meanwhile, contain 24 ingredients. As for the teriyaki glaze? We stopped counting at 30. The chicken breast is made with rib meat and contains potassium chloride, which is safe in small amounts, as well as autolyzed yeast extract, which "can cause a similar sensitivity that MSG (monosodium glutamate) causes," according to Subway.
Swap it for: a grilled chicken sandwich dressed with chimichurri, topped with red peppers, onions, and greens. At 303 calories, it's risk-free real food.
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The muffin melt will only cost you 170 calories and 6 g of fat, and packs 12 g of protein and 20% of your daily calcium. (That sure beats a McDonald's Egg McMuffin, which has twice the fat and 130 more calories.) But believe it or not, McDonald's "eggs" are prepared with fewer ingredients than the sandwich chain's. In addition to whole eggs and egg whites, Subway's omelet patty contains 21 other ingredients, including "premium egg blend" (a 10-ingredient concoction that includes propylene glycol, which is found in antifreeze), the preservative TBHQ, a silicone that is also used in Silly Putty, and glycerin (yes, the soapy stuff.) But the English muffin (not pictured above), on the plus side, doesn't contain corn syrup, which is all too commonly found in processed foods.
Swap it for: a truly filling omelet with tomatoes, spinach, and shredded mozzarella, for just 391 calories.
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If you go all out and order every type of vegetable on your Veggie Delite®, you're in for some weird surprises. Take the banana peppers, which could be two ingredients (peppers marinated in vinegar, say) but is instead 10, including two preservatives and yellow #5, a synthetic food dye also known as tartrazine. Tartrazine is currently being phased out in the UK because of its links with hyperactivity in children. (Search: Calming Foods for Hyperactive Kids) Tied for most ingredients in a single vegetable are the pickles, which also contain 10. The jalapeno pepper slices, meanwhile, contain 7, and even the avocado isn't just, well, avocado. Instead, it's "avocado pulp, water, and ascorbic acid." On the plus side, a 6-incher costs you only 230 calories.
Swap it for: our favorite veggie sandwich of all, meaty Portobello mushroom with provolone, pesto, and a pile of vegetables for just 302 calories.
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Are you safe with a salad? Well, that depends. The croutons contain artificial butter flavor and lactic acid. The fat-free Italian dressing contains high fructose corn syrup and 25 other components, like xanthan gum, caramel color, and phosphoric acid. And the simple-sounding red-wine vinaigrette? 20 ingredients, including anti-caking agent, modified food starch, xanthan gum, and sodium benzoate. Water and corn syrup are the two main ingredients, with red wine vinegar coming in third. If you get yours plain with no dressing, no croutons, no cheese, and (fresh) vegetables only, then congratulations! You're in for a healthy 50-calorie treat.
Swap it for: a salad you don't have to feel guilty about dressing. Our harvest salad has turkey, apples, walnuts, blue cheese, dried fruits, and a tangy orange dressing for just 330 calories.
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At this point, you may be getting grossed out by the sandwiches. Their yogurt parfait may seem like a good alternative, at 190 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. After all, it has 20% of your daily calcium. Unfortunately, the parfait has 28 grams of sugar--that's roughly the equivalent of 12 packets of sugar--and contains corn syrup and soy oil, both of which might be GMO.
Swap it for: Greek yogurt, blueberries, granola, and honey for just about 400 calories. No added oil in sight!
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This 6-inch Black Forest ham sub with a slice of Swiss cheese has 340 calories and 9 g of fat--not bad for lunch! So is the main ingredient a healthy hock of ham, roasted on a smoky spit in a rustic black forest? Not quite. This little piggy is cured with the sweetener dextrose and a host of unpronounceable chemicals, such as potassium lactate, modified food starch, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. One good choice you can make here is to ask for Swiss cheese. Made of only cultured pasteurized milk, salt, and enzymes, it's the cleanest of the options. Of Subway's seven cheeses, cheddar and Monterey contain artificial color, and two of them--Monterey and parmesan--contain cellulose, a powdered wood or cotton pulp that's used as a cheap, fat-free filler. (Intrigued? Find out more of the 7 Grossest Things In Your Food.)
Swap it for: the ham and cheese sandwich with whole ingredients. This one, with whole-wheat bread, mustard, American cheese, lettuce, and tomato, has 411 calories. Use your favorite organic ham and cheese.
The oven-roasted chicken sandwich on Italian herbs and cheese bread is just 360 calories! And... 820 mg of sodium. And more than 60 ingredients in the bread alone.
The chicken breast patty includes an ingredient listed (literally) as "chicken type flavor," and according to research on the watchdog site Truth in Labeling, six of the ingredients listed in the chicken "sometimes or always contain MSG." Subway's website says it does not "add MSG to any of the standard menu items," but that doesn't mean some of the ingredients from down the supply chain don't. To wit, ingredients "such as hydrolyzed or textured vegetable proteins and/or autolyzed yeast are used in our products. These ingredients contain glutamates that may cause similar sensitivities that MSG causes."
Swap it for: golden roast chicken with lemon, garlic, and rosemary. Make it a 380-calorie meal with hearty stuffing and broccoli.
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If you're wondering how Subway packs all that flavor into a 6-inch with just 5 g of fat, you can point to the corn syrup, the sweetener dextrose, salt, and spices. The meat slice itself is also coated in a sweetener and salt, and contains the aforementioned "caramel color." Top it with fat-free sweet onion dressing, and the whole thing's just 360 calories, though.
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Swap it for: a real meal that ditches the preservatives. Steak, mixed grilled veggies, Italian dressing, and a sangria for just 422 calories.