Published on 22nd May 2018


May sees the return of British Sandwich Week, a week’s “celebration of the greatest food-to-go and quite possibly the most iconic British culinary invention”.1 But considering that as a nation we are already scoffing around 11.5 bn sandwiches a year and buying 3.5 bn of those,1 should we really be eating more? Or is it time for the sandwich to move over? Maggie Charlesworth writes

Sandwiches (sarnies, butties... they have so many names) are big business. The UK sandwich industry alone is worth around £8 bn per annum, and even has its own awards, appropriately called The Sammies.

In 1980, high street retailer Marks and Spencer, which had experimented with selling sandwiches back in 1929, tried again. This time the idea took off, and today we can buy sandwiches in pharmacists (Boots the Chemist soon followed in M&S’ footsteps), petrol stations, and newsagents — places where, before the butty boom, it would have been unheard of to buy food. If we want, we can buy a sandwich for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and can even have them seasonally-themed. Last winter, several food chains advertised Christmas-themed sandwiches so that if we couldn’t wait for Christmas day, we could get into training with turkey and stuffing-filled sandwiches, baps and wraps.

Shop-bought sandwiches have liberated us from the drudgery of having to prepare our own lunch. They are convenient, quick, and allow us to eat without having to think about anything other than filling a gap.

But have we become victims of the sandwich’s success?

In 2016, a study which reviewed the eating habits of more than 27,000 American adults found that sandwich consumption was associated with an increase in daily calorie intake by 98.7 kcal.2 So should we be concerned?

“I think the problem really comes when you’re reaching for those pre-packaged sandwiches which are made using white bread, lashings of sauces and processed fillings,” says Angelique Panagos, a registered nutritionist and author of The Balance Plan. “These sandwiches are pretty nutrient-poor and can spike blood sugars, meaning you’ll crash and burn later on.”

Panagos’ major “bugbear”, however, is “advertisements showing a white bread sandwich with lashings of a sugary chocolate spread, which make it out to be a healthy breakfast — it’s not!”.


Another criticism of sandwiches is that they are too easy to eat. Growing evidence shows that mindfulness, focusing on what we are doing, can lead to a lower intake of calories3 because we are paying attention to our body’s fullness signals. A sandwich, however, can disappear within a matter of minutes, having barely been noticed.

How often have you gone to take another bite out of a sandwich before realising that you’ve already finished it?

Debbie, a “self-confessed foodie” and cookery teacher says she rarely eats sandwiches because she tends to eat them too quickly.

“One of my favourite treats used to be when my husband would make egg and bacon sandwiches for brunch,” she says. “A typical breakfast sandwich would have a couple of bacon rashers, a fried egg, and a slice of cheese — as well as the bread and butter. That’s a lot of food, but I would eat it in minutes. Sometimes, I would eat two because I was still hungry and hadn’t given myself time to feel full.

“Then one day I realised that I had just eaten the equivalent of two full breakfasts. And, to make matters worse, I hadn’t even enjoyed it as much as I would have if I had eaten it as a meal on a plate with a knife and fork, taking my time.”

Debbie says that she now eats meals that are more like “deconstructed” sandwiches. “It’s usually more like a massive salad and maybe a slice of bread. That way I have to use a knife and fork, and so it forces me to eat a bit more slowly. If I’m faced with a sandwich, it will last only a few minutes and I’ll want to eat more — it’s a habit I can’t seem to change, so I try to avoid them.”

“...Try to choose fillings with a good source of protein such as sliced chicken, beef, smoked or poached salmon...”

Variety is the spice of life

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of us eat the same lunch day in, day out. In a widely-reported survey carried out by New Covent Garden Soup, 58 per cent of 2,000 people surveyed said that they had eaten the same foods for as long as they could remember — with a ham sandwich coming out on top as the most commonly-eaten lunch.

This is sad news for our gut bacteria, which thrive on variety. Our microbiota, the billions of bacteria living in our guts, need a varied, fibre-rich diet to thrive. And while a meal deal might seem to offer variety, it could be more limited than we think, often containing mostly starchy carbohydrates and refined sugar rather than the essential nutrients found in vegetables and fruit.

“I totally get it,” says Panagos. “I live in the real world, and eating this type of meal once in a while is okay. It’s when you rely on it daily that it’s going to have a negative effect on health, hormones and even weight.”

Healthy choices

Panagos says that even brown bread options can be filled with processed meats, unhealthy fats, and less-than-fresh ingredients. And she cautions against “foods masking themselves as healthy — think cereal bars full of sugars”.

Registered nutritionist Kate Delmar-Morgan says that when making our own sandwiches, we can increase our gut-friendly fibre intake by choosing breads such as pumpernickel rye bread, rye bread, or wholemeal breads. Wholemeal pitta breads are great for stuffing full with a variety of vegetables.

“Try to choose fillings with a good source of protein such as sliced chicken, beef, smoked or poached salmon,” she says. Other good sources of protein are tuna, hummus, falafel or cheese. “Then add as many vegetables as you can... grated carrot, finely sliced red cabbage, cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot, shredded cabbage, courgette, cress, sprouted beans, peppers, radish, roasted veg, spinach leaves, and watercress.”

...the British sandwich habit produces... 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 eq., equivalent to the annual use of 8.6 million cars...

Another top tip, she says, is to use avocado instead of a butter or olive oil spread.

Savvy sandwiches

Delmar-Morgan and Panagos both recommend making our own sandwiches so we can control what goes into them. But, says Delmar-Morgan, if you are buying a sandwich on the run, choose wholemeal over white bread. “Avoid paninis, baguettes, bagels, white bread — this is all highly-refined wheat.”

She also recommends throwing away half the bread. “If you have bought a sandwich which comes, as is normally the case, in two halves, throw away one side of the bread from each half and put the remaining halves together. This means that you have a better ratio of starchy carbohydrate (bread) to protein and veg (filling).” Whilst it can seem wasteful to throw away bread, especially on a tight budget, there can be small health benefits to this.


A recent study at the University of Manchester found that the British sandwich habit produces, on average, 9.5 million tonnes of C02 eq., equivalent to the annual use of 8.6 million cars,4 although, environmental impact differs for filling type and whether sandwiches are homemade or shop-bought.

Meat-based sandwiches such as bacon or sausage and egg were calculated to have the highest environmental impact. But transportation, storage in refrigerators, and packaging, all add to the environmental burden.

While this doesn’t mean that we have to give up sandwiches, it does show how convenience could be costing the earth. Even a homemade sandwich will have some kind of carbon footprint — it’s impossible to completely avoid it — but choosing local ingredients and avoiding plastic wrap or foil should help.

So this may be food for thought: it used to be that the pricey, shop-bought lunch looked a bit more exciting than homemade fare, but does all this mean that the humble homemade sandwich could have a renaissance as the new eco-statement for 2018?

Take away our takeaway?

It is unlikely the sandwich industry is going to see any decline soon, but reconsidering our reliance on the British butty could be an opportunity to bring some variety to the table.

“It’s good to mix things up and enjoy different foods where we can,” says Panagos. “If [a client is] a sandwich-lover and relying heavily on them, I would look to recommend alternatives, trying to see how we could free up some time to batch cook some recipes to have easily to hand.

“On the days where they are having a sandwich, I would encourage variety in good quality breads, with toppings ranging from boiled eggs to pulses, chicken or fish, adding in some avocado and lots of veggies. Another idea is to have an open sandwich with a salad on the side. This is maybe not as enticing as a triple decker cheddar melt but, made right, it’s delicious, nutritious and satisfying.”

Kate Delmar Morgan |
Angelique Panagos |



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    2. An R et al (2016). Sandwich consumption in relation to daily dietary intake and diet quality among US adults, 2003–2012. Pub Health. 140: 206-212.
    3. Van De Veer et al (2015). Body and mind: Mindfulness helps consumers to compensate for prior food intake by enhancing the responsiveness to physiological cues. J of Cons Res. 42.5: 783-803. [abstract]
    4. Espinoza-Orias N & Azapagic A (2017). Understanding the impact on climate change of convenience food: Carbon footprint of sandwiches. Sust Prod and Consump.