When the history of the fast food industry is written, this may be remembered as the year the chains capitulated to the growing health food crowd—with its joy-killing scrutiny of fat grams and its pesky reliance on legal irritants like class-action suits—and went lite. According to restaurant analyst Mark Kalinowski of Smith Barney, the chains are trying stanch profit losses by wooing two groups of consumers: "light" diners (mostly women) who have never seen the appeal of a giant burger eaten on the run from a grease-stained wad of wax paper, and "lapsed" diners who have slipped away to more upscale "fast casual" chains like Boston Market. How are the chains seeking to win this audience over? With lettuce. All the major chains have recently introduced or upgraded their salad lines. (Wendy's Garden Sensations, the first fancy salad line, arrived last year.) The thinking seems to be that salads offer at least two incentives that haven't been traditionally associated with fast food: Classiness ("What's next—valet parking?" McDonald's asked in a recent billboard) and healthiness. "These are the anti-burger," the chains' ads seem to whisper. "Eat them, America, and live long and be well." ("And if you want to quit suing us, that'd be OK, too.")
But are fast food salads really healthier than their beefy, greasy, delicious cousins at the top of the menu board? And, more important, how do they taste? I set out to answer these questions in a weeklong taste test of salads at chain restaurants around my home in Santa Monica, Calif., and quantified the results with the aid of a painstakingly precise scientific formula I arrived at while driving to McDonald's.
A Note on Methodology
What is a salad if not crunchy? The essential crunchiness (C) of the lettuce base must be considered first. Almost as important is the issue of real versus perceived nutritional value (N): How does a given salad's fat content measure up against the daily allowance of 65 grams of fat recommended by the FDA for people consuming a "typical" 2000 calories per day? Toppings (T) are also key and were scored for both quantity and quality. Finally, I assessed the net value of the dressing (D): Does it add to the overall deliciousness of the dish or create a soggy, salty mess? With all this in mind, on a 1 to 5 scale: C+N+T+D=PSS (Premium Salad Score).
McDonald's uses a nicely crunchy mix of up to 19 different greens in its three Premium salads and tops it with carrot strips and grape tomatoes. The simplest variation is the Chicken Caesar, but it's also the most disappointing—a Caesar is all in the dressing, and the Newman's Own that dresses this one is woefully light on anchovies. All McDonald's salads come with a choice of grilled or crispy (read: fried) chicken. I had my Caesar with grilled chicken, which wasn't bad: chewy, with actual grill marks. The grilled chicken also went well with the California Cobb; it offered a useful platform for the bacon bits and a good counterpoint to the sharp flavor of the blue cheese. The dressing was weirdly yellow, though, promising mustardiness but instead delivering a jarring jolt of vinegar and garlic. Both salads come with a 25-gram fat load—not an unreasonably large chunk of the FDA's 65-gram per day recommendations. (The Big Mac, for comparative purposes, weighs in at 33 fat grams.) I switched over to crispy chicken for the Bacon Ranch salad and paid for it in fat grams (a gut-busting 51 including dressing and close to a whole day's allowance). (If I had ordered the Bacon Ranch salad with the grilled chicken, I would have saved 8 grams of fat.) But the dressing at least tasted ranchy, with that bracingly tangy onion-dip flavor you expect, and the dish offered the closest thing to the feeling of biting into a fast food sandwich: a little resistance followed by a fatty, oozy sinking of the teeth.
Chicken Caesar: C=3, N=3, T=2, D=1; PSS=9
California Cobb: C=3, N=3, T=3, D=1; PSS=10
Bacon Ranch: C=3, N=1, T=4, D=2; PSS=10
Average PSS: 9.67
I started by striking the Taco Supremo salad for taxonomic reasons. (It's actually less a salad than a taco in a bowl.) This left two Wendy's entrees: the Mandarin Chicken salad and the Chicken BLT salad. The Mandarin Chicken salad's fresh lettuce and mix of slivered almonds and crispy rice noodles give it a hearty crunch and a lively flavor; the toppings also contrast nicely with the sweetness of the mandarin oranges, the chewiness of the grilled chicken cubes, and the authentic sesame taste of the dressing. High marks, even with a relatively stiff fat content of 34.5 grams—more than half a day's allotment (and 5.5 grams more than is in the Wendy's Big Bacon Classic burger). The Chicken BLT salad also offered a combination of textures and tastes, with its blend of bacon bits, shredded cheese, and crispy greens. And Wendy's gets extra points for offering a selection of low- and no-fat dressings. I had the low-fat honey mustard on my Chicken BLT and ended up with fat load of 21.5 grams, well within the nutritional comfort zone.
Mandarin Chicken: C=3, N=2, T=4, D=4; PSS=13
Chicken BLT: C=4, N=4, T=4, D=3; PSS=15
Average PSS: 14
Just one salad here, the Chicken Caesar. The chicken bore traces of an unidentifiable glaze or marinade, which started things off on an unsettling note. The croutons had a delicious buttery aftertaste, though, which helped to cut the garlickiness. The accompanying dressing, Kraft Signature Creamy Caesar, wasn't much better than the McDonald's version, although this salad does weigh in at a respectable 20 fat grams. (That number doesn't include croutons, for which no stats are available. A Whopper with cheese, by comparison, checks in at an artery-clogging 53 fat grams.) All in all, an odd little entree—an orphan on the menu, which shows the signs of a chain getting into salads with less than a whole heart.
Chicken Caesar: C=2, N=4, T=1, D=1; PSS=8
Jack in the Box Jack in the Box offers three Ultimate salads. The Chicken Club' s crispy lettuce base is studded with crunchy croutons and ranch-flavored almonds, but unfortunately, this all accompanies an appalling piece of chicken that has a spongy texture and an unpleasant taste of chemicals. Add a salty bacon-ranch dressing, and you end up with a staggering 65 fat grams—equal to the FDA's daily limit and perilously close to the chain's Ultimate cheeseburger (which has 66). The chicken is also the weak spot in the Asian Chicken salad, which is too bad; mandarin orange sections and crunchy wonton strips taste fresh and make for an appealing texture, and the dressing also has a nice kick of sesame. You do better on fat here, 35.5 total grams, but this is still not great for a single meal. The Southwest Chicken salad at least offers something to distract you from the ugliness of the chicken: the salty, blindingly spicy creamy southwest dressing. (It's a bright orange color, which is pretty to look at.) But the 44 fat grams here equal almost two-thirds of the daily recommended intake.
Chicken Club: C=3, N=1, T=1, D=1; PSS=6
Asian Chicken: C=3, N=2, T=1, D=2; PSS=8
Southwest Chicken: C=3, N=1, T=1, D=1; PSS=6
Average PSS: 6.67
Known for its big beefy burgers, Carl's Jr. doesn't seem to be bringing its A-game to salads. The Charbroiled Chicken Salad-To-Go clocks in at 29 grams, close to half the FDA's daily total (but still well below the hard-to-swallow 62 grams of Carl's Six Dollar burger). And, featuring the soggiest lettuce of the bunch, it doesn't offer much in the way of aesthetic or gustatory pleasure. The chicken breast is reassuringly chewy but loses points for the murky indeterminacy of its vestigial glaze. The Buffalo Ranch Chicken saladis easier to get a fix on, but not in a good way: The battered chicken lumps that give it its name (and a hefty 51 fat grams) are reminiscent of fried Buffalo wings, which isn't a recommendation in my book. I was also a little unsettled by the Teutonically straight alignment of the garnishing carrot and celery strips; it didn't exactly suggest the kind of improvisational spark that means fresh preparation. And the less said about the dressings, which reeked and tasted of vinegar, the better.
Charbroiled Chicken: C=1, N=2, T=1, D=1; PSS=5
Buffalo Ranch Chicken: C=1, N=1, T=1, D=1; PSS=4
Average PSS: 4.5
Wendy's experience in the field shows, although industry leader McDonald's is breathing down its neck (with breath that no longer smells quite so much of beef tallow but increasingly of a tangy whiff of ranch). Burger King manages to eke out a third-place finish by keeping its offerings tightly focused and serving a salad that's surprisingly nutritious. Jack in the Box is lagging far behind, and Carl's Jr. is effectively out of the race. In every case, it bears remembering that fast food salads are fast food first and salads second. If it's a healthy meal on the go you're looking for, grab a banana and a smoothie. And if you really have 30-plus fat grams to play with, have a burger. You might not live longer, but at least you'll enjoy your lunch.