Friday, January 29, 2010

Showdown: McDonald's vs. Panera

Ever since "Super Size Me" came out in 2004 and really before that, food critics, parents, and friends (literally everyone) has stressed that McDonald's is the spawn of Satan. If you're hungry and away from home, avoid McDonald's and their golden arches at all costs. It's been drilled into our heads for a long time. However, that doesn't mean people listen. Last year, in a Reuters article, the author cited numbers presented by the National Center for Health Statistics that show that more Americans (34%) are obese than simply overweight (32.7%). As you know, fast food restaurants like McDonald's significantly contribute to these numbers.

So, comparing McDonald's and Panera Bread has to be stupid, right? Panera, labeled as a 'Fast Causal' restaurant, has got to be better for you with its health deli sandwiches, fresh salads, and soups, no? Even the critics agree: Health Magazine voted Panera #1 Healthiest for Eating on the Go; Zagat, one of the most trusted restaurant rated services, rated Panera #1 for Best Healthy Option.

Here's where it gets interesting. Panera is not better for you than McDonald's. OKAY, so maybe on the whole, Panera is a better option than McDonald's; however, there are certain Panera Menu items that blow even the Big Mac off of its 'Most Unhealthy' Perch. Before you write me off, listen. And let's forget about the Big Mac's 540 Calories and 29 grams of fat. That's minor league; we need to upgrade to the 790 calories and 39 grams of fat in the Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger (including 145 mg of cholesterol and 2070 mg of sodium). Have you thrown up a little in the back of your mouth yet? Well, I didn't until I read this: Panera's Italian Combo on Ciabatta has 1040 calories, 45 grams of fat, 165 mg of cholesterol, and 3020 mg of sodium.

That is absolutely absurd. And no, to answer your question, the Italian Combo is not an outlier on Panera's menu. There are at least four items (the Chipotle Chicken, the Sierra Turkey, the Salmon Club Croissant, and the large Mac & Cheese) with more than the Italian Combo's 45 grams of fat. The Mac & Cheese has 61 grams of fat and 26 grams of saturated fat. That's only three less grams of saturated fat than the Big Mac has grams of total fat.

When the Panera opened on the corner of North University and Thayer in Ann Arbor, I was excited at first because I used to love Panera. However, I soon realized that it could directly syphon business away from a favorite sandwich spot of mine, Amer's, which is right down the block on State Street. Luckily Amer's has survived and seems to be thriving with its new menu of frozen yogurts. So if you're looking for something healthier, new, and with less of a chain-restaurant feel to it and you haven't been already, you need to get to Amer's.


  1. Hey Peter,
    I am so glad that you brought this to my attention! haha I have taken several nutrition classes in which America's number one health problem, obesity, has been addressed and analyzed in depth. One thing that has always bothered me is the fact that a lot of people attribute America's unhealthiness to fast-food eating, but like you have pointed out there are many other factors such as portion size and dining out in general that contribute to this problem. A lot of fast food chains such as Taco Bell and even Dunkin Donuts are coming out with healthy choice options to their menus which will hopefully help the problem of obesity in some way or form. However, I believe exercise and moderation in a diet are two of the most important things to keep healthy.

  2. While you do mention several unhealthy options on the Panera menu, you neglect to mention the options that ARE healthy-- and the two proportions. For example, it is likely that the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods at Panera is much higher than that of McDonalds. I also speculate that if you did a grand total of the calories, grams of fat, saturated fat, etc. of every item on their menu, then the totals at McDonalds would greatly exceed those of Panera.
    Just some "food" for thought.

    Also, I love Amers but they have their fair share of unhealthy options too.

  3. I like that you did this comparison; it helped keep me interested and definitely made me think twice about my own eating habits. I think it's important to remember, though, that every menu has healthy and unhealthy options. If you're eating at any restaurant, you have to know the menu and make smart decisions, not necessarily avoid the restaurant altogether. It would also be interesting to see a comparison of the healthy options on Panera and McDonald's menus.

  4. I could argue with you that fast food restaurants have made us obese. There are complex reasons for obesity in America...

    But I applaud you for the comparison to Panera and McDonald's. McD's gets a bad rap when in fact most processed, mass produced food is probably not so great for you. It requires more salt to preserve it and fat (as in oil) is cheap compared to protein so they load up their products with fat. So Panera isn't the perfect choice. Moreover, I think Panera's serving sizes are enormous and that leads to overeating.