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The beef in your fast-food burger may not be exactly what it seems. Natalie Jeffcott/Stocksy
  • Beef, chicken, and fish products at fast-food restaurants aren’t always made from 100 percent meat.
  • They can contain additional additives, such as a textured vegetable protein or a soy product, that make them cheaper to produce.
  • Health experts say these types of processed meats are less healthy than unprocessed meats.
  • If you’re concerned about the quality of the meat a fast-food establishment is serving, health experts suggest checking the ingredients list on the menu, as it may offer unprocessed options as well as plant-based alternatives.

Recently, The New York Times took a deep dive to get to the bottom of one of the great questions of our time:

Is the fish product included in restaurant chain Subway’s popular sandwiches actually tuna or… something else?

The investigative report by journalist Julie Carmel was in response to a class-action lawsuit in California filed back in January against the fast-food giant. The lawsuit makes the claim that the brand’s tuna fish sandwiches “are completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.”

The lawsuit spread far and wide, even eliciting some sympathy from pop star Jessica Simpson — herself once famously questioning the provenance of Chicken of the Sea (is it chicken or tuna, after all?) — on Twitter.

The headlines generated around the tuna confusion played into the long-standing debate of what exactly is in the meat we consume at fast-food restaurants.

How healthy are the highly processed items you might order at McDonald’s or Subway? Are they everything they claim to be as advertised?

In an email statement to the The New York Times, a Subway spokesperson wrote that “there simply is no truth to the allegations in the complaint that was filed in California.”

“Subway delivers 100 percent cooked tuna to its restaurants, which is mixed with mayonnaise and used in freshly made sandwiches, wraps and salads that are served to and enjoyed by our guests,” they added.

For her part, Carmel sent samples of Subway tuna sandwiches to a commercial food testing lab. The results were somewhat inconclusive.

The labs found that “no amplifiable tuna DNA was present” in the samples she sent over, and that they could not “identify the species” present in the sandwich products.

A spokesperson from the lab told The New York Times that two conclusions exist from this: either the tuna products are “so heavily processed” that it was impossible to make a clear identification of tuna, or “there’s just nothing there that’s tuna” in the samples sent over.

Carmel cites an earlier Inside Edition report that found positive tuna identification derived from samples from three Subway locations in Queens, New York City.

Registered dietitian Amber Pankonin, MS, LMNT, offered some more context for Healthline.

When asked whether the allegations that Subway might be selling questionable meat products is a common industry practice in fast food, Pankonin said “it really depends on the brand, who their supplier is, and what they offer on the menu.”

She said fast-food brands that have more than 20 locations in the United States are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clearly post their nutritional information publicly.

“There are fast-food chains that might use a textured vegetable protein or a soy product as a filler in their beef burger or tacos,” she explained. “If you are concerned about this, I would recommend looking for ‘100 percent beef’ in the menu description and checking allergen information.”

Pankonin directed Healthline to readily accessible information that you can easily reference if you’re concerned about what foods you might be consuming from a fast-food establishment.

This includes official menu labeling guidelines from the FDA and publicly available information on beef sourcing from popular brands like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center, echoed Pankonin that it really depends on the specific product.

She told Healthline that it is “difficult to ‘fake’ a product that looks like just what it is,” such as a meat patty-based hamburger.

“However, if it is a fried nugget, i.e., chicken nugget, the question may become a bit murkier, as there are often a number of additional ingredients in the product, like breading, starch, dextrose, for instance, that could either mask an alternative meat product or actually make up more, by weight, of the product than the ‘chicken’ or so-called named meat itself,” added Hunnes, who is also author of the forthcoming book “Recipe for Survival.”

What is the nutritional value of meat-based fast-food items?

Hunnes said she generally consults people to limit or avoid meat intake, adding that a plant-based diet is generally far better for one’s overall health.

That being said, if you do eat meat-based products, she said “unadulterated meat” is better due to the fact that you will be consuming “unprocessed meat product, which in some ways will be a tad bit healthier than ‘processed meat products.’”

She said many restaurants, even fast-food establishments, are offering more plant-based alternatives. Her personal opinion is to gravitate to these offerings more, and they’re better for the environment at large.

Just by looking at menu labeling requirements, Pankonin said it’s now pretty easy to access nutrition and allergen information for your go-to fast-food items. She said you should avoid items that might contain potential allergens for you.

“Nutritionally, those products that contain fillers will probably be fairly similar,” she added, emphasizing, again, it really depends on the specific restaurant and their suppliers.

So, how healthy is fast-food meat? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

“In terms of cooking preparation and taste acceptance, they [fast-food meat items] might perform differently. With added fillers, there might be more moisture or flour in the product that might impact cooking and quality. And depending on how much filler is used, this can impact the flavor of the product,” Pankonin said.

She added that with fast-food restaurants, “standardized products can provide consistency in terms of estimating nutrition facts.” This is compared with shopping for and preparing a burger from scratch at home; it all depends on the “meat that is used and the portion that is prepared.”

“When I advise folks about what to order from fast-food restaurants, it really depends on what their health goals are and if there are any food allergies. I can help them evaluate the calorie and nutrition information to see if specific menu items fit in their overall diet plan,” Pankonin said.

If you’re concerned about the headlines about fast-food meat, what are good menu alternatives at your favorite fast-food place?

​”Some of the plant-based alternatives will be incrementally better than actual meat in terms of health. I say incrementally, because they are still a processed food product and will contain salt,” Hunnes said.

“But, they are better for health in the sense that their fats are coming from plant-based sources, which are generally better than fats from animal sources, and they may also contain fiber, which meat will not,” she said.

Pankonin reiterated it’s all about your dietary and health preferences.

“Again, I think it depends on health goals and if there are any food allergies. For example, if somebody is allergic to soy, they should be educated about meat fillers and also avoid some of the plant-based options on the menu as well,” she said.

Pankonin said if you’re making a burger from the comfort of home and want to lower the fat or the calorie content, for example, you can try making “a burger blend” by “using ground beef and vegetables like onions and mushrooms.”

She said some go-to breakfast suggestions include coming up with something you can prep and freeze ahead of time.

Try a breakfast sandwich that uses a whole-wheat English muffin, egg, and slice of cheese. This could be a simple alternative to getting your favorite breakfast sandwich to go before heading into the office.

She also said no-bake recipes are a good way to reduce your kitchen time. Additionally, Pankonin cited wraps that can be stored in a cooler and brought to the family picnic or the lunchroom as good options.

Beyond this, she said you can’t go wrong with charcuterie boards.

“They are basically adult Lunchables, and I love them,” she said. “These are super easy to assemble and can be a great alternative to fast food. Instead of a board, package in a bento box and lunch is ready to go.”

Hunnes said that while it might seem cheaper to go to a fast-food place and order four burgers, four fries, and four soft drinks for your family or group of friends for $20, in reality, you might be doing a lot of damage to your overall health and “you may pay for it on the back end.”

“However, since most people do not think that far ahead when choosing meals, from a monetary, and momentary, standpoint only, you absolutely can make something similar, healthier, and potentially even cheaper at home,” Hunnes said.

She said plant-based meat brands Impossible or Beyond Burger are just $9 to $11 per pound. A pound can feed four people. Wheat buns are just $3 for about 8, with lettuce, tomato, and onion setting you back about another $4, and soda adding a bit more, say another dollar or so.

The grand total? That’s roughly $17 for your own homemade burgers.

“It’s actually cheaper and far healthier to make at home,” Hunnes added. “And, if you wanted to use actual meat, it would probably be even cheaper since most ground meats are maybe $5 per pound.”

Overall, while we might not have solved the great tuna mystery of 2021, a few things are clear.

Always look into the dietary and nutritional background of the food you consume, assess whether it contains allergens, and consider potentially cheaper, and healthier, options you can make for yourself and your family.