I give credit to Wendy's for making salads a big part of the fast food chain's menu. The burger joint just rolled out four new "premium" salad choices -- adding to the existing four choices. So salad eaters have 8 choices. Panera Bread is another fast-causal eatery that showcases salads. And with research lambasting frequent burger eating, substituting a tasty salad for a burger *can* be good for the body -- if you pick the right salad.
And that is the point of this post: How good/healthy are fast food chain salads?
First, some research: A study of 50,000 children across the globe found a link between burger consumption and asthma. It wasn't the burger itself that made wheezing more likely, but instead the other lifestyle factors that seem to go along with frequent burger eating. The study published in the British medical journal "Thorax" concluded that "more frequent consumption of fruit, vegetables and fish was associated with a lower lifetime prevalence of asthma, whereas high burger consumption was associated with higher lifetime asthma prevalence."
So, back to the salads. How healthy are these salads? Are they calorie bombs like many of the salads served at restaurants?
We've looked at the online nutrition information for the salads offered at Wendy's, Panera Bread and McDonald's. Our winner will have the salad with the best veggie and protein bang for the calorie buck, which means that we value the ingredients, size and how the salad comes together nutritionally.
In general, Wendy's salads, without any tinkering, range in calories from a low of 510 (grilled chicken Caesar) to a high of 790 for the chicken BLT salad and 740 calories for the new Baja chicken salad (likely calorie culprits are guacamole and chili). Panera's range from 280 (strawberry poppyseed and chicken) to 520 (fuji apple and chicken). McDonald's salads range from about 220 calories (chicken Caesar) to 430 calories (southwest with crispy chicken). Beware the nutrition information from McDonald's. It does not include
Conclusions: Wendy's vs. McDonald's vs. Panera
Bottom line is that true salad aficionados will not be satisfied with any of the options; however for those looking for good protein, less carbs and some other tasty flavors, Panera will be your best bet. Panera is a cut above its competition in terms of the salad toppers (types of cheese, nuts and fruit).
1. Salad Dressings: No clear winner. For example, at Wendy's dressings are served in packets and can add as little as 40 calories and as much as 250 calories. Wendy's offers four dressing options under 100 calories: Italian (but only at some shops), fat free French (yuck), ancho chipotle ranch and classic light ranch. Panera's dressings, with the exception of its fat-free poppyseed dressing (15 calories) and the Asian sesame (90 calories), are calorie BOMBS. Panera's dressings (even the low-fat options) range in calories from 140 to 220 calories. McDonald's offers two sensible options, the low-fat balsamic (40 calories) and the low-fat
Italian (60 calories). Do NOT go for "creamy Caesar", it adds 190 and a load
of fat too.
2. Greens: They are all losers. No chain offers a spinach option or a full "spring greens" option. McDonald's and Wendy's offer mixed greens or romaine; however "mixed" means iceberg, romaine and "spring" or "baby lettuces". Almost all of Panera's options are chopped romaine. (the Fuji apple salad adds some baby greens.) We'd prefer all spring or baby lettuces and a spinach option!
3. Protein: Panera is the winner. Athletic-Minded Travelers will undoubtedly order salads with grilled chicken (versus crispy), and all three chains have this option. In terms of calories, it's a tie with each chain's grilled chicken breasts yielding about 120 calories. However, Panera's chicken gets the edge because it is marinated (citrus herb) and/or "all natural and antibiotic free".
4. Salad Toppers: Panera is the winner. Wendy's comes second and McDonald's third. This is the biggest weakness for the fast food salad. The only vegetables offered aside from the greens are tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and pico de gallo. WEAK. There are other toppers that will add flair and taste. At Wendy's some salads have almonds, cheese (Parmesan, cheddar, blue cheese crumbles), and fruit (dried and fresh). Panera offers more upscale toppers. Red onion, feta, various fresh fruit, nuts, olives, corn, and herbs. McDonalds really doesn't offer anything too interesting beyond Parmesan.
5. Size: Winner? It depends. Just like any food, "serving size" varies and this will affect how many calories are in the food and how filling it may or may not be. For the salads with chicken, the sizes seemed fairly comparable with a few standouts. Wendy's new Baja is big in terms of weight and it comes with more calories while McDonald's salads were the smallest. Specifically, Wendy's salads range from 330 grams to a whopping 577 grams, (Not surprising, the bigger Baja Salad also packs 740 calories.) Panera's salads range from 320 grams to 437 grams. McDonald's selections are the smallest with a range of 311 grams to 350 grams.
Athletic-Minded Salad Picks for Each Chain: Maximize size, protein and flavor. Minimize useless calories.
Wendy's: Go for the Caesar with Grilled Chicken or the Apple Pecan Chicken
Why: Only the salads with the "grilled" chicken made our cut. We eschew the extra calories and fat that the "spicy" and "homestyle" chicken breasts yield. And since none of the salad choices offer much in the way of real veggies, our focus was to pick the salad with the best toppings for the chicken. The Caesar offers good protein, grape tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and croutons. It comes with 2 packets of dressing (250 calories for both). With no dressing the salad is only 260 calories but packs 36 grams of protein--better than any "protein bar." The *NEW* Apple Pecan Chicken Salad has more calories (580) but also comes with blue cheese crumbles, apple chunks, and dried cranberries. You'll get 38 grams of protein adn can save 120 calories if you skip the 2 packets of Pomegranate dressing.
Panera Bread: Go for the Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken or the Fuji Apple Chicken
Why: With the strawberry poppyseed salad, the 27 grams of protein are nicely earned with low-fat and sensible ingredients: citrus herb chicken breast, oranges, blueberries, pineapple tidbits, strawberries and pecans. All good stuff. For more calories (520) and slightly more protein (31 grams), the Fuji apple chicken salad has apple chips, Gorgonzola crumbles, red onions, tomatoes, and pecans. The white balsamic Fuji apple dressing is partly to blame for the higher calorie count (150 calories). Substitute the fat free poppyseed and this salad yields a more reasonable 385 calories! ** Bonus ** What we like to do (if we don't mind spending extra money) is order the Classic Cafe salad without dressing and add the extra greens to either of the above choices.
McDonald's: Go for any salad with grilled chicken and one of the two low-fat dressing choices.
Why: No salad here offers much beyond lettuce and chicken. Think of the salad as a way to cut carbs. So pick what you like.
When we hit the road, we like knowing that the nearest exit could yield a decent meal option.