Food and diet

How healthy is your sandwich?

The health risks from pre-packaged sandwiches have been featured in several newspapers, with The Times featuring the headline ‘Cheese and pickle sandwich and a heart attack’ and the Daily Mail warning that, ‘Ready-lunch can contain as much [salt] as 12 bags of crisps.’

The newspapers have highlighted the hidden levels of sugar, fat and salt in a number of popular high street sandwiches, saying that one Asda cheese sandwich was found to contain more saturated fat than a Big Mac. Other examples include a Marks and Spencer cheese and chutney sandwich containing over five teaspoons of sugar, and Subway’s six-inch meatball sandwich containing 4.7 grams of salt- more than three-quarters of the recommended daily limit for adults.

Even ‘apparently healthy options’ such as chicken are not as good as they seem, with a herb chicken and rocket sandwich from Pret A Manger containing the same levels of fat as a Big Mac. Which? says consumers  might not realise how much salt is contained in a sandwich because they are not required to carry a nutritional label. The magazine has urged consumers to ask for this detail. The magazine also hopes that more food outlets will sign up to the Food Standards Agency voluntary scheme to provide calorie information.

What is the basis for these current reports?

These news stories come from an article in Which? magazine, which has analysed a variety of sandwiches to find out their nutritional benefits. Which? is an independent consumer charity based in the UK that acts to help consumers make more informed choices relating to a range of products and services.

In February and March of this year Which? bought 14 chicken salad sandwiches from a variety of outlets, including products from both ‘healthy’ and ‘premium’ ranges where available. The magazine chose sandwiches with a chicken filling, as it is the most popular choice of sandwich, accounting for 30% of sandwich sales.

The Which? team examined nutritional labels and gained information where possible on the amount of chicken in the sandwich, plus its origin. Sandwiches obtained from supermarkets, Boots and coffee chains were all readily labelled with nutritional information but for those from Greggs, Subway and Pret a Manger, nutritional information had to be obtained either online or from the outlet.

What did they find?

Of the 14 sandwiches analysed, Sainsbury’s taste the difference butter roasted chicken contained the most calories at 495kcal. This was closely followed by Pret’s herb chicken and rocket sandwich with 456kcal.

When analysing meat content, the researchers also found that several chicken sandwiches listed ingredients such corn flour, salt, water or tapioca starch to bulk up the meat they contained. Origin of the chicken was only available on sandwiches from M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s premium range, Waitrose and Starbucks.

The analysts also found that price did not necessarily reflect quality, with the cheapest sandwich, Morrison’s deep fill chicken salad (£1.79) being found to contain more chicken than the most expensive sandwich analysed, Caffe Nero’s chicken with oven roasted tomatoes and spinach (£3.20). According to Which?, the healthiest and best value sandwich was the Tesco chicken salad sandwich (£1.80), which provides 390kcal, 12.6g fat (1.3g saturated), and 1.2g of salt.

Which? also published information on some ‘sandwich shockers’, including the Asda vintage cheddar ploughman’s that contained 15.2g of saturated fat (over 75% of a woman’s maximum daily amount); the Subway six-inch meatball marinara with 4.7g salt (more than 75% of an adult’s 6g maximum daily intake) and the M&S Wensleydale carrot chutney with over five teaspoonfuls of sugar.

What does this mean for me?

With the public encouraged to make healthier food choices, it is important that consumers are able to make well-informed decisions about the food that they might consume. Key to making these choices is that the public is fully aware of how unhealthy some seemingly harmless sandwiches may be.

One of the best ways to avoid the hidden levels of fat, salt and sugar found in pre-packaged lunches is to make sandwiches and salads at home, where you have more control over exactly what goes into a sandwich. Simple steps toward making a healthier sandwich can be consulting the labels on spreads, dressings and mayonnaise and opting for low salt, low fat and low sugar ingredients wherever possible.

As Which? suggests, a homemade sandwich containing two slices of Hovis granary bread, Asda sliced roast chicken, Hellman’s light mayonnaise, one tomato, cucumber and salad leaves contains 355kcal, 7.6g fat (1.4g saturated) and 1.5g salt whilst costing only £1.38 to make.

Also, fresh fruit or vegetable snacks, unsalted nuts or dried fruit (without additional hydrogenated fats or sugar) can take the place of salty or sugary prepared snacks during the day.

If lack of time makes preparing food at home difficult, then reading nutritional labels or asking staff for information can help you choose healthier products.

How do I read food labels?

On food labels ingredients are listed in descending order of how much is contained in the product: the ingredient with the highest content will be listed first, and the least common ingredients will come last.

There will often be information on the amount of sugar, fat and salt per 100g in a single serving. Be aware that what the label may class as a single portion might be smaller than a person might typically consume. For example, one ready meal might be listed as containing two portions.

Several supermarkets and other food outlets now display information based on a traffic light system that aims to make it easier to compare the calories, fat and sugar of one product to another.

However, it is important to note that food labelling is not strictly governed and that information can mean different things on different products. ‘Low-fat’ typically means a product containing 3g of fat or less per 100g, and ‘low sugar’ being 5g of sugar or less per 100g; other food statements are not so clearly defined. Be aware that a product claiming to be ‘low fat’ may still contain high levels of sugar and salt. 

Several coffee and sandwich chains have now signed up to the Food Standards Agency scheme to provide calorie information when eating out, and it is hoped that more food outlets will follow suit.

NHS Attribution