Based on a survey conducted at fast food restaurants, customers estimated Subway sandwiches were up to 25 percent lower in calories than they actually are.
Overall, the underestimation in adults averaged 175 calories and got larger as the number of calories in the meal increased.
But “Subway was the most insidious, with adolescent estimates averaging around 500 calories on the low side. Adults and adolescents eating at Subway estimated 20 and 25 percent lower than those at McDonald’s, respectively.”
The full study, “Consumers’ Estimation of Calorie Content at Fast Food Restaurants” is published in the journal BMJ.
Researchers interviewed participants dining at fast food chain restaurants in Boston and Springfield, MA; Providence, RI; and Hartford, CT. The study considered the 10 chains with the highest sales in the US.
The Atlantic’s James Hamblin points out researchers led by Dr. Jason Block at Harvard surveyed 1877 adults, 1178 adolescents, and 330 children at places like McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, and Subway, among others.
“They asked customers to save their receipts, then estimate how many calories were in their meals. Most of the customers ended up being non-white, 65 percent of the adults and 57 percent of the school-age children were obese, and 40 percent reported eating at that same restaurant chain at least once per week.”
The study concluded that of over 3000 diners at six fast food restaurant chains across four diverse New England cities, adults, adolescents, and parents of school age children generally underestimated the calories of meals, especially if the meal was large.
And adults and adolescents dining at Subway underestimated calorie content more than diners at other chains.
Details from the study:
* At least two thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals, with about a quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories.
* The mean underestimation of calorie content was larger among Subway diners than those at other chains for adults (349 calories, 293 to 406 calories) and adolescents (500 calories, 429 to 571 calories) with similar values for all chains among school age children.
* With McDonald’s diners as the reference, adult diners at Subway and Burger King showed greater underestimation of meal calorie content as did adolescent Subway diners. Adolescent diners at Dunkin’ Donuts had less underestimation of meal calorie content than McDonald’s diners.
* Adult and adolescent diners at Subway restaurants estimated lower calorie content than diners at the other chains. These findings suggest a consistent “health halo” for Subway in these age groups. In a study of 518 participants eating meals with equivalent calorie content at McDonald’s and Subway, Chandon and Wansink found that participants estimated 151 fewer calories at Subway than at McDonald’s.
* Participants also ordered side dishes with more calories at Subway. Dieticians also falsely considered equivalent calorie meals to be lower calorie at Subway than McDonald’s. Our study extends these findings by showing that this “health halo” is unique to Subway across the six chains and is present across age groups in a diverse sample.
* Branding could be an important component of Subway’s “health halo.” Marketing researchers have found that brand positioning is particularly important in guiding consumer choices when specific information about products is not available.
For example, simply labeling a food item as “heart healthy” led consumers in one experiment to conclude that the item conferred a lower risk of heart disease and stroke than similar unlabeled foods. Subway’s positioning as a “healthier” fast food option might lead consumers to view its food as lower calorie, especially when calorie information is not readily apparent.