Fast Food Burgers & Fries Compared

December 6, 2010 9:30 am
Posted in: Menu Mondays
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Big Mac

Instead of analyzing one specific restaurant on this particular Menu Monday, I thought it might be fun to make some apples-to-apples burgers-to-burgers comparisons of a few popular fast food chains.

I’m not encouraging you to visit any of these establishments — since only a trivial few of their offerings (none of which are mentioned here) might be worthy of a green check-mark at all — but I do think it’s interesting to see which chains are “better” and which are “worse” when it comes to some standard American fast-fare.

McDonald’s is the restaurant most often vilified when we’re talking about fast food — and with good reason: They pretty much invented it, and are the biggest player by a huge margin. They have more locations than Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., Jack in the Box, Fatburger, Sonic, and In-N-Out — combined.* (They also employ over 1.5 million people worldwide!)

So how does Mickey D’s compare to some of the other chains? The answer might surprise you.

To keep it simple, I’ve picked two options for each of the major chains — their “signature” burger and whatever is the closest I can find to a “regular” cheeseburger.  I’m also including a medium order of fries, so we can see how they stack up.  Frankly, I have no idea what the most popular menu items actually are, but I figure the Big Mac and Whopper (and similar) have to be near the top of the list, so it makes sense to compare them rather than some of the other (even larger) options.

I wouldn’t consider any of these items healthful (unless you’re suffering from kwashiorkor, which, if you’re reading this, I can just about guarantee that you’re not), and in fact this post could easily be read as an indictment of the entire fast food industry.

Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between the chains.  Some cheeseburgers, for example, can be nearly double the calories of others (In-N-Out vs. Wendy’s), and the sodium in the fries can vary by up to three times (Carl’s Jr. vs. McDonald’s).

The lists below are sorted by calories, and in each column the lowest numbers are green and the highest are red.

Signature Burgers

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Wendy’s: 1/4lb Single with Cheese 530 11 27 1,200
McDonald’s: Big Mac 540 10 29 1,040
Jack in the Box: Bonus Jack 540 13 33 1,062
Sonic: Cheeseburger 630 12 31 1,138
Carl’s Jr.: Famous Star with Cheese 660 13 39 1,240
Fatburger: “Fatburger” with American Cheese 660 12.5 36 1,410
Burger King: Whopper 670 11 40 980
In-N-Out: Double-Double with Onion 670 18 41 1,440

1/4 Pound Cheeseburger

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Wendy’s: Jr. Cheeseburger 270 5 11 690
Carl’s Jr.: Kid’s Cheeseburger 290 7 15 790
Burger King: Cheeseburger 300 6 14 710
McDonald’s: Cheeseburger 300 6 12 750
Sonic: Jr. Burger (comes without cheese) 313 5 15 611
Fatburger: “Baby Fat” (without cheese) 400 6 21 1,080
Jack in the Box: Hamburger Deluxe with Cheese 421 9 23 947
In-N-Out: Cheeseburger with Onion 480 10 27 1,000

Medium Fries

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
Sonic 326 2 13 437
McDonald’s 380 2.5 19 270
Fatburger (“Skinny”) 390 3.5 15 730
In-N-Out Fries (one size) 400 5 18 245
Wendy’s 420 3.5 20 500
Carl’s Jr. 430 4 21 870
Burger King 440 4.5 22 670
Jack in the Box 443 2 20 809

Signature Burger PLUS Medium Fries

Calories Sat. Fat Total Fat. Sodium
McDonald’s 920 12.5 48 1,310
Wendy’s 950 14.5 47 1,700
Sonic 956 14 44 1,575
Jack in the Box 983 15 53 1,871
Fatburger 1,050 16 51 2,140
In-N-Out 1,070 23 59 1,685
Carl’s Jr. 1,090 17 60 2,110
Burger King 1,110 15.5 62 1,650

Conclusions

Although it’s not entirely consistent – and I must reiterate that these aren’t the only options at each chain – I think it’s noteworthy that McDonald’s is near the top of the list in all three categories. If you were to order a Big Mac and Medium Fries, you’d actually do better than a similar order at any of the other chains.

Sadly, In-N-Out performs poorly for both burgers, though their fries are the lowest in sodium which helps them a bit in the final tally.  Burger King may have the most calories (their sandwiches are some of the biggest), but Fatburger and Carl’s Jr. are the only ones over 2,000 mg of sodium (taking it from “too much” to “way too much.”).

One final disclaimer: This is an intellectual exercise — I’m not recommending that you eat any of these food products. Calorie intake should be around 1,500 to 2,500 (depending on your needs), saturated fat should be under 20-25 grams per day, and sodium should be under 2,400 milligrams. Those are totals for your the entire day, so I find it hard to see how any of these can be part of a healthful diet. McSigh.

Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.

* McDonald’s has 31,000+ locations, Burger King: 12,000+, Wendy’s: about 6,700, Sonic: 3,000, Jack in the Box: 2,100, Carl’s Jr.: 1,100, In-N-Out: 140, Fatburger: 102.

Image by SnaPsi.

18 Comments on "Fast Food Burgers & Fries Compared"
  1. Comment left on:
    December 6, 2010 at 9:52 am
    Amanda says:

    So sad about In n Out, in Cali we tend to snub fast food more than other places I have lived, but In N Out is like this exception everyone makes, and somehow we like to think it is healthier, at least than McDonalds :(

  2. Comment left on:
    December 6, 2010 at 11:04 am
    Michelle says:

    Interesting to see that all of the burger + fries combos are over 1 mg of sodium, and some over 2 mg! No surprise that one would order a soda to wash that down!

  3. Comment left on:
    December 6, 2010 at 11:09 am
    Laya says:

    Honestly, I’d like to see a post about the “sit down fast food” type places – Boston Market, TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, etc.

    Personally, if fast food is my only choice (and unfortunately, sometimes it is) my place of choice is Chick-Fil-A. I can get a guaranteed fresh salad (since other fast food salads are very hit and miss) and one of two low fat dressing choices and come away satisfied, while my friends indulge in the fried offerings and full fat milkshakes. Plus sugar free lemonade (if you don’t mind Splenda, that is)!

    • Comment left on:
      August 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm
      Charles says:

      Hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but Chick-fil-A is NOT a healthy food. Here are the ridiculous amount of ingrediens in a chicken sandwich:
      Chick-fil-A® Chicken Sandwich
      Chicken (100% natural whole breast filet, seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika], seasoned coater [enriched bleached flour {bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid}, sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening {baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate}, spice, soybean oil, color {paprika}], milk wash [water, whole powdered egg and nonfat milk solids], peanut oil [fully refined peanut oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness and dimethylpolysiloxane an anti-foaming agent added]), bun (enriched flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, riboflavin {Vitamin B2}, folic acid], water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: liquid yeast, soybean oil, nonfat milk, salt, wheat gluten, soy flour, dough conditioners [may contain one or more of the following: mono- and diglycerides, calcium and sodium stearoyl lactylates, calcium peroxide], soy flour, amylase, yeast nutrients [monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate], calcium propionate added to retard spoilage, soy lecithin, cornstarch, butter oil [soybean oil, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, TBHQ and citric acid added as preservatives, and artificial color]), pickle (cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, lactic acid, calcium chloride, alum, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate [preservatives], natural flavors, polysorbate 80, yellow 5, blue 1).
      The lesson here….always read labels & cook whole foods at home as much as possible!
      http://chick-fil-a.com/Food/Menu

  4. Comment left on:
    December 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    It’s not a big surprise about the sodium. I don’t understand why there is so much salt on everything. If you go a month without eating fast food, then you can hardly eat it at all because it tastes so salty. Not only would it be healthier with less, but it would taste better also.

  5. Comment left on:
    December 7, 2010 at 1:26 am
    Andrew says:

    Amanda – It definitely seems like In-N-Out is “healthier” than McDonald’s because their food is fresher. It very well may be, if you’re not looking at it just by the numbers. Fresher food, even at a fast food join, is generally better for you. I don’t know if their beef is any better than their competitors’, but their fries are indeed made fresh from whole potatoes. That should count for something, though at this point in nutritional science it’s impossible to quantify. (But even so, In-N-Out is just as much of a cheat meal as any other!)

    Michelle – I think you meant 1 gram and 2 grams… One fun way to put this in perspective: A teaspoon of table salt has about 2500 milligrams (2.5 grams) of sodium, about little more than your day’s max. So that BK meal has nearly a whole teaspoonful of salt. Nice, eh?

    Laya – I’ve actually already written about Boston Market and Chili’s! :) I’ll add Chick-Fil-A to my to-do list. Great suggestions, thanks!

    Derek – I agree, but unfortunately salt taste preferences are subjective, and acclimate over time. Salt is cheap, makes foods more flavorful, and is a preservative. So it’s no surprise that food manufacturers love it. What’s fascinating to me is that the fries have a lot less sodium than the burgers — it’s likely because of the bread. I’ve noticed that most breads have a TON of sodium, unfortunately. When salt is sprinkled on top, a little goes a long way. But when it’s mixed in, it seems to disappear. It’s taken us years to get to this point, and it’s going to take years for us to get back to lower amounts.

  6. Comment left on:
    December 7, 2010 at 9:53 am
    Kristy says:

    It’s grea to see these stats all put together in one place. I don’t eat beef, but the fry comparison alone is enough to re-remind me why I don’t like to stop at fast food resterants when I’m traveling.

    Another vote for Chick-Fil-A comparisons, both healthy and unhealthy. I can eat healthier there, but if I’m going to splurge on something fried, Chick-Fil-A is always my choice. I heard there 8 piece chicken nuggests is one of the lowest calorie fast food fixes?

    • Comment left on:
      December 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm
      Andrew says:

      Hi Kristy –

      Thanks for the feedback, and you’re right about the fries! They should be a treat, not something that’s a “given” at nearly every meal… and I’ll add your vote for a Chick-Fil-A review! Will definitely be sure to include their “nuggets.” :)

      Thanks,
      Andrew

    • Comment left on:
      January 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm
      Danielle says:

      unfort. I cant include Chick Fil A in any of my choice due to their moral and ethical view points, so wont eat there out of principal. No matter how good their food is :-(

      • Comment left on:
        January 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm
        Andrew says:

        I’m SO with you there. I don’t think their food is any good, of course, and I agree their social and political views (and funding) are even worse.

        • Comment left on:
          January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm
          Danielle says:

          well ‘good’ rather than good :-) They prob wouldnt think me worthy of their custom anyway – so we’re all happy :P

      • Comment left on:
        October 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm
        Kitty Ball says:

        This is about comparing fast food not about one companys stand on moral issues.

  7. Comment left on:
    September 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I realize I’m way late on this but what about a post comparing salads or other “healthier” options at the fast food places? As a recovering fast food addict, I’ve switched to healthier options at many places (like Wendy’s signature salads or McDonald’s Oatmeal). How do these stack up compared to each other?

    • Comment left on:
      September 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm
      Andrew says:

      That’s a great idea, thanks! I’ll add it to my to do list — though I won’t be able to get to it until after October Unprocessed! :)

  8. Comment left on:
    February 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm
    Pedro says:

    This is article is stupid. Do you people honestly think that McDonald’s is healthier than In-n-Out? In-n-out might have more calories, but at least they use fresher ingredients than any other big chain. Also, you are not require to eat a double double, you can just settle for a cheeseburger. In-n-out uses fresh ingredients and I am sure it is the healthiest fast food option. McDonald’s uses “pink slime” in their meat…enough said.

  9. Comment left on:
    February 15, 2012 at 12:49 am
    Bet says:

    Besides fat and sodium, chemicals should be taken into factor too. McDonald lettuce is said to be sprayed with 13 chemicals to keep it green and crispy and their patties are questionable as well. Sadly they seem to be cutting quality with their foods but pouring money into their marketing campaigns. Not a fan, never will be again.

  10. Comment left on:
    March 6, 2013 at 11:03 pm
    Cris says:

    I can read these blogs all day!! Great info!! Keep them coming :).

  11. Comment left on:
    October 1, 2013 at 5:09 am
    Amber says:

    Ok so, my husband and I own a little burger place in Spring, Texas and we do EVERYTHING fresh, (even our buns which are wheat based) never frozen and we get most of our produce from local growers or markets. How do we make it even better? We would love to offer organic but that isn’t always possible given the seasons change and some things don’t have a good quality when it’s not in season. We have been thinking about buying land and growing our own produce but that takes way more man power and money than we have for now. Any advice?

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