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Much like the burger, the sandwich has several components that can be tweaked to offer consumers a bevvy of nutritional value—there’s the bread, proteins, cheeses, vegetables, and condiments. One of the most customizable quick-serve staples, the sandwich had seen a fair amount of innovation and heightened attention to quality ingredients.
As the category leader, Subway has positioned itself as a healthful alternative to other fast-food options through careful marketing and its iconic spokesman, Jared Fogle. And company executives have put their money where their mouth is, continually working to improve Subway’s nutrition.
“Back in 2009, we were looking at nutritional parameters, and there was a lot of talk about sodium in the diet,” says Lanette Kovachi, Subway’s corporate dietitian. “We thought we could do more to make our sodium levels more responsible.”
Since then, the chain has cut sodium in its sauces, turkey, ham, roast beef, and bread, accounting for a 30 percent decrease across its entire menu, Kovachi says. The changes make Subway a more ideal choice for those seeking a heart-healthy diet.
“We know definitively that sodium increases blood pressure … particularly as one ages and in certain populations. If you have higher blood pressure, that’s a risk factor for heart disease,” NRA’s Dubost says. “The controversy revolves around if a high-sodium diet drives up the risk of heart disease, and that’s where the evidence hasn’t been as clear. Nonetheless, blood pressure has been an issue in this country.”
Kovachi says Subway’s commitment to nutrition often means months, sometimes years, of recipe and product testing because the chain can’t compromise flavor. “Of course, bread has the biggest impact on our nutrition, so if we can do something positive to the bread, we can do something positive to the sandwiches,” she says. In 2011, the brand fortified all of its bread varieties with calcium and vitamin D, and a 6-inch piece of bread offers as much calcium as a glass of milk.
“For us, it’s extremely important that we’re ahead of the nutrition trends. It never stops—we’re always looking at ways to improve the products,” Kovachi says. “We also always want to have choices for our customers, including those more indulgent choices.”
CSPI’s Hurley says portion size plays a big role in how healthy a sandwich can be. “Sometimes this means you’re consuming more calories than you would in a burger,” she says. “If you’re talking about a fast-casual place like Panera or Au Bon Pain, those kinds of places have a problem with the size of their sandwiches.”
When compared with Subway’s 6-inch Turkey Breast sandwich, Panera’s Smoked Turkey Breast on Country Bread has almost double the calories—430 to Subway’s 217. Au Bon Pain’s Turkey and Swiss sandwich weighs in at 740 calories.
“Half portions for sandwiches are really ideal from some chains because they can just be so large,” Healthy Dining’s Ring says. “You can have those with a salad and light dressing, and it becomes a much better option.” Both Panera and Au Bon Pain offer half-sandwich portions.
Ring says there is still room in the segment to add new sauces, vegetables, and even fruits. “We’re seeing a lot of restaurants get creative and use hummus as a spread instead of mayo,” she says. “Some other unique ingredients we’ve seen include thinly sliced sweet potatoes and thinly sliced green apple.” For its part, Subway recently ensured all of its restaurants offer spinach year-round and avocados during the summer.
Chicken, when pared down to its poultry essence, is a healthy, lean protein source. But when seasoned and battered and fried, not so much.
“Obviously, if you’re not going to fry, and you’re going to bake, grill, or boil, it’s going to drive down calories,” Dubost says. “With fried chicken, the breading can drive up fat and sodium, and not all chicken is heavily breaded. That’s one thing you could be mindful of.”
Sodium is a key area of concern because many chains offer poultry that’s been injected with salt water to increase food safety, Dubost says. The Food and Drug Administration suggests that one’s daily intake of sodium should be no more than 2,400 milligrams.
At KFC, which boasts a variety of fried chicken options seasoned with a secret combination of herbs and spices, a single Original Recipe chicken breast can account for nearly half a day’s sodium intake, at 1,080 milligrams. The same cut of meat in the brand’s Extra Crispy recipe has 1,140 milligrams of sodium, along with 8 more grams of fat. Comparatively, a breast from the KY Grilled Chicken Bucket has only 730 milligrams of sodium, two-thirds less fat than the Original Recipe, and 6 more grams of protein—proof that it is possible to offer a healthier grilled option at even the most traditional of fried chicken chains.
Beyond decreasing sodium and offering different preparation methods, there are other small changes those in the chicken segment can make to improve the overall quality of offerings, experts say. Chick-fil-A is one example of a brand flying under the radar with its attention to nutritional detail. The brand worked to remove dyes from various menu items and is testing a new type of peanut oil without tert-Butylhydroquinone, a form of butane used as a preservative in foodservice.
“We have a good long-term relationship with [our suppliers],” says Jodie Worrell, senior nutrition consultant at Chick-fil-A. “When I’m working on something, I turn to them, tell them what we’re looking for, and they will help us develop it.”
Worrell adds sodium reduction to the list of important initiatives Chick-fil-A has tackled over the years.
The brand also places an emphasis on its grilled chicken options, which rolled out as a sandwich option in 1989. The Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich has 310 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 830 milligrams of sodium. “It’s really part of our long-term menu strategy of creating a menu of craveable food that’s increasingly healthy, natural, and sustainable,” says Brian Kolodziej, senior manager of culinary. In 2004, he says, Chick-fil-A switched its bun to a golden wheatberry version for added nutrition, and he and his team continue to work with suppliers and menu developers on various initiatives.
The NRA’s Dubost says an inclusive process for change can yield success like Chick-fil-A’s. “We have to continue to improve by working with suppliers, working with chefs, working with nutritionists and food scientists to provide food that’s healthy but also tasty enough that consumers crave them,” she says.
Easy ways to make these fast-food staples healthier.
Burgers: Consider replacing the bun.
Fries: Hand-cut potatoes and leave the skin on.
Pizza: Use a healthier flour for the crust.
Sandwiches: Decrease portion sizes.
Chicken: Change the cooking technique.