Waiter, there’s a TBHQ in my soup.

“Know thyself.” – Temple of Apollo at Delphi

“You are what you eat.” – Victor Lindlahr, Bridgeport Telegraph, 1923.

The wisdom contained in these quotes have been with us for quite some time, If we accept them as true, then it follows that we should know what we eat. And yet, more than ever in history, we have lost touch with what, exactly, it is that we are eating.

It seems that every few years, a scare story pops up about people finding disgusting things in their fast food – inedible substances like plastic bags, vermin remains, you know the type. Most of the time, thankfully, these stories aren’t true – or, at worst, manufactured by a disgruntled employee trying to take revenge on their workplace. Tales like these tap into our fears about the strange things someone else has the ability to put in our food. They are effective because we know that chicken heads do not belong on our plate – but does a “boneless skinless chicken breast with rib meat”? What about “sodium acid pyrophosphate”?

What, exactly, is in my club sandwich?

To find this out, we ran an informal experiment. Using the published nutritional facts for several restaurants, we compiled a list of unique ingredients for the closest thing that each restaurant has to a club sandwich. We chose a club sandwich because it is a classic, and many restaurants have an item that, if not exactly a club sandwich, is close enough for a quick look.

Please be aware that this was an informal study, and the differing format of cited ingredients means that there are no clear cut one-to-one comparisons between restaurants. The numbers are rough, and depend on our methodology, which we kept consistent – but if you try this at home, your results may vary. Here’s what we found:

SUBWAY Club® on white bread with mayonnaise and mustard: 87 unique ingredients.

Tongue-twisting ingredient: acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides

What it’s used for: A baking emulsifier (allows oil and water to mix). It strengthens dough by creating a strong gluten network. It makes bread airy and chewy. More info.

Panera Bread Chipotle Chicken Panini: 57 unique ingredients.

Tongue-twisting ingredient: propylene glycol alginate

What it’s used for: A thickener and stabilizer, in this meal it is found in the ancho chipotle spread.More info.

Burger King TENDERGRILL® chicken sandwich: 80 unique ingredients

Tongue-twisting ingredient: beta‐apo‐8’‐carotenal

What it’s used for: A plant-based pigment with an orange-red color. Related to beta-carotene, with about half the pro-vitamin benefits. Here, it is used as a pigment in the cheese. More info.

Taco Bell Baja Chicken Gordita: 94 unique ingredients

Tongue-twisting ingredient: tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

What it’s used for: A preservative for oils to prevent them from going rancid. Here it is used in the vegetable oil that goes into the flatbread. More info.

To create a control, we tried to come up with a “constructionist” sandwich that is built with the bare minimum components, one which we could make at home with ideal ingredients – for instance, flour without conditioners or preservatives – but still be recognizable as a club sandwich. We built a sandwich with white bread, mayo, mustard, turkey, ham, roast beef, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, and cucumbers, and this is the result:

Knife & Fork Project’s Bare Minimum Club: 32 unique ingredients

Tongue-twisting ingredient: Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What it’s used for: Here, for adding moisture and shine to the ham, and a little for flavor in the mayonnaise (though mostly, we use canola and sunflower oil for our mayonnaise). More info.

If you went to the store to purchase the ingredients for that sandwich, you would likely have a hard time getting down to this few ingredients, due to the products themselves having preservatives and additives. Depending on what you buy, you can realistically make a club sandwich at home with around 40 unique ingredients. That gives us a good yardstick for the ideal situation. When you subtract the obvious ingredients from our store bought club sandwich, you still have to ask: what are the extra 20-50 ingredients used for?

The answer is simple: When you make a sandwich at home, you are only concerned with a few things:

  • What does it cost?
  • Does it taste good?
  • Can I make it?

You don’t care if you can make it exactly the same way every time, or that you can make it across the country with different suppliers, or have to transport it. You’re just making a sandwich.

When a company is making a sandwich, they have more concerns:

  • What does it cost?
  • Can we make it with appropriate financial margins?
  • Can we make it with minimum additional training for the workforce?
  • Does it taste good?
  • Will it have a consistent flavor?
  • Does it look good?
  • Does it look like what the consumer expects?
  • Will it have a consistent look?
  • Will it have a consistent texture?
  • Can we store the ingredients indefinitely?
  • Will the ingredients transport well?
  • Can we supply the ingredients internationally?

Companies have far more concerns than individuals, because the market size for the sandwich you make in the kitchen is just one, whereas large scale food suppliers have to please as many people as possible. As consumers who buy finished food, we have insisted on consistency as synonymous with quality – it is unacceptable to have gordita flatbread that has rancid oil in it, so in goes the TBHQ. We have asked restauranteurs to make our food with additives so that we get the exact same sandwich anytime, anywhere, with minimum variations at the counter. Because of this, it’s hard for the restaurants to provide food without additives, even if they wanted to, because that’s what we consumers have voted for with our dollars – consistency.

We aren’t advocating that you stop eating at these restaurants – we eat at them too, and enjoy their food – but, it is our belief that you should eat with your mind first. Know what’s in your food, and know why it’s there.

“Know thyself, you are what you eat.” – The Knife & Fork Project

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