The news this week that Subway bread is so sugary, according to the Irish supreme court, that it cannot, for tax purposes, be classed as bread, has left Subway customers reeling. Just kidding. The Subway empire was built on the teenage boy. Hence its strong showing on YouTube and remarkable array of sauce. Teenage boys don’t care about sugar content or, for that matter, VAT. Yet is this added sugar so unusual, or is it simply the way of the high street? And can you really taste the difference between bread and unbread? I went to sample some to find out.
Turkey Ham and Cheese Sub 6 inch with cucumber, jalapeño, lettuce, red onion and chipotle southwest dressing, £3.49
You always have to make a call in Subway between a sandwich that is slightly too small (six inches) and one that is magnificently too big (one foot). As the aficionado will know, part of its appeal is the intricacy of its choices: you can have one of nine breads, all the garnish you can imagine, any or all of seven sauces.
The wholemeal options are considered the more nutritious, but – spoiler alert – they’re all disgusting. I had the Italian bread, which has an unaccountable dusting of something like semolina or cornmeal, which gives it a gritty spin, like a mouthful of sand. The bread is like Vichy: no resistance, morally questionable.
Another distinctive Subway tactic is that the sandwiches are mainly toasted on the interior, so the outside is like an untoasted sandwich and the cheese is still melted; it’s an innovation for the company rather than the customer, I would venture, since who knows what would happen to this bread of nothingness, this incredibly soft substance if you applied too much heat to it?
Both the cheese and the meat taste as completely neutral as you can imagine, which is why everyone who goes in there puts jalapeño on everything. I love the dressing, though.
Of which sugars: 6.2g
Verdict: Definitely more cake than bread, 4/10
Ham and Cheese Baguette, £4.99
This is the Body Shop of the sandwich world – definitively 80s (the first store opened in Waterloo in 1986), largely superseded by modernity and flat refusing to give in. The sandwiches never taste as good at home as they do on the station concourse; nobody knows why. The baguette is pretty narrow, and created a stir six years ago when they were reduced from 10 inches to 9, but it’s still larger than the Subway offering, so bear that in mind for the nutritional comparison.
The bread sags its way into your mouth, neither crunchy nor fluffy, not especially sweet but not exactly savoury either. The filling is extremely plain: butter, ham, cheese, nothing else.
You know when you’re a kid and your mum gets annoyed with you picking bits out of your packed lunch, so for two years straight she gives you exactly the same sandwich with absolutely no variation? It tastes a bit like that.
Of which sugar: 0g
Verdict: Inhabits the space between cake and bread, 6/10
Pret a Manger
Ham and Greve Baguette, £3.45
I didn’t realise what good value Pret was until I saw them all side by side. I feel like an idiot politician being astonished at the price of milk. Anyway, this is cheaper even than Subway and much larger, far cheaper than the Upper Crust, also half an inch longer and quite a bit wider. The filling is great: nice mustard mayo, a bit of lettuce for the ladies, good quality and interesting cheese, decent ham. The bread has a good mouthfeel, a lot of substance and actually tastes like bread. I wonder whether baguette is actually right for the on-the-go market, though: all the sandwiches are made freshly that day, but I bought this at 9am and it still tasted like it had seen better days. A bit late to worry about that, I suppose. The baguette is king.
Of which sugars: 3.9g
Verdict: This is bread, slightly tired but unbowed, 8/10.
Ham and cheese panino, £4.25
These are typically toasted, which is a flattering move on a panino; it tasted by far the freshest of the breads, with a pleasing crunch as you break through the outside, and a bland but not sweet interior.
The inside is deceptively simple but there’s quite a lot going on: melted, mild but very salty cheddar on one side; quite a thoroughly processed ham, with that distinctive oblong shape of a meat product forged in a factory; and then something more like a béchamel sauce on the other side, totally tasteless, merely conveying comfort and squish.
It tastes like the kind of sandwich you’d get on an American train in the 90s, engineered for the broadest possible appeal.
Of which sugar: 2.3g
Verdict: A perfectly respectable bread, 5/10
Ham and Egg Roll, £3.05
I’m just going to talk you through my choice, here: I could have got a ham and cheese baguette, but the rolls were much more similar, in size and composition, to other sandwiches. It had been filled with an eye on efficiency over the eating experience; once the bag was open, the egg went everywhere. It was a bit spartan for my tastes: unbuttered, a lot of filling but none of it very interesting – again with the heavily processed ham, plus some tasteless tomatoes and completely unremarkable iceberg lettuce.
I don’t want to clutch my pearls, but the bread I found actively insulting. It was nominally wholemeal, in the sense that it looked brown, but absolutely without bite or taste or anything to recommend it. It had an artificial quality: if you rolled it between your finger and thumb, you could compact it into a little earplug (a better quality bread would crumb).
I’d say I was disappointed, except that there’s a perfectly good answer to this: when in Greggs, always get the sausage roll.
Of which sugars: 1.6g
Verdict: It’s more bread than cake, but more packing material than either, 4/10
• This article was amended on 3 October 2020 to remove a reference to Tie Rack because it has been closed for some years.