An investigative Canadian TV program revealed that the chicken from Subway sandwiches only contain about 50% chicken.

Subway – not exactly rocket chicken… or something like that. Image credits: JeepersMedia

Chicken? Where?

According to the Canadian study, Subway’s Oven Roasted Chicken patties averaged 53.6 percent chicken DNA while the Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki strips come in at 42.8 percent. The rest of it was soy, ironically making the sandwiches more eco-friendly. The fast-food company has challenged these statements, with a spokesman calling them “absolutely false” and calling for a retraction.

The tests were conducted by a DNA researcher at Trent University’s Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory and were presented during a CBC Marketplace episode dedicated to fast food chicken. They haven’t been independently confirmed, nor have they been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The episode also analyzed dishes from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, A&W and Tim Horton’s restaurants in Canada. All of these had at least 80% chicken, which is not particularly surprising. The meat was tested without any condiments or sauces but marinating and seasoning would bring any sample below 100%.

The program contacted all the food chains discussed and received pretty similar responses: our chicken was 100% chicken, we can’t tell you everything we put in it because that’s our secret, but it’s definitely good chicken — yada yada. For instance, a Wendy’s spokesperson said:

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“Wendy’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich is a whole muscle chicken breast fillet; not reformed or restructured. In addition, we use only 100% Canadian chicken in Canada. For our grilled chicken sandwich and other grilled chicken products (salads, wraps, etc.) we use a juicy, all-white meat chicken breast fillet, marinated in a blend of herbs. We do not provide ingredient percentages as we consider that information to be proprietary.”

Similarly, McDonalds praised their product and said it’s 100% chicken:

“Our grilled chicken sandwich is made with 100% seasoned chicken breast. The chicken breast is (a single piece) trimmed for size to fit the sandwich. We don’t release the percentage of each ingredient for competitive reasons, but on the nutrition centre people can see that our grilled chicken includes seasoning and other ingredients, just like at home.”

Subway, on the other hand, was a clear outlier. Initially, after it was revealed that their products had little more than half what they should have, they said they will “look into this” and verify their supplies. After a while, they came back with a strong reply, rejecting the CBC’s accusations.

“The accusations made by CBC Marketplace about the content of our chicken are absolutely false and misleading. Our chicken is 100% white meat with seasonings, marinated and delivered to our stores as a finished, cooked product,” the spokesman said in a statement sent to NPR. “We have advised them of our strong objections. We do not know how they produced such unreliable and factually incorrect data, but we are insisting on a full retraction.”

A broader problem

I expect more fast-food chicken studies to emerge in the near future, hopefully settling this problem one way or another. But the CBC study raised an even more stringent problem: the lack of adequate nutrition in fast foods.

I guess no one really expected fast food chicken to be healthy, but it’s surprising to see just how little nutritional value fast food chicken has: “about a quarter less protein” than home-cooked chicken, and sodium levels “seven to 10 times what they would be in a piece of unadulterated chicken.” Basically, it’s a much, much worse chicken than what you’d generally find in supermarkets — let alone on a farm.

“People think they’re doing themselves a favor and making themselves a healthy choice” by picking chicken, a nutritionist told the CBC. “But from a sodium perspective, you might as well eat a big portion of poutine” — the infamous Canadian dish which includes french fries, gravy, and cheese curds.

At the end of the day, you’re much better off avoiding fast foods altogether.