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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?

The truth about fast-food meat

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 FDATrusted Source and publicly available information on beef sourcing from popular brands like McDonald’sWendy’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.”

Source: What’s in Fast-Food Beef, Fish, and Chicken? It’s Not Always 100% Meat