The Restaurant Rat : Fast-Food Entree Salads: New Leaf or Fig Leaf?

By Kathryn Martin
Kathryn Martin has covered dining and entertainment from coast to coast – Los Angeles to South Carolina – for more than a decade. She admits to being picky about what she eats, and where she eats it.

Fast-food restaurants have taken a lot of heat recently about their contribution to the nation’s growing obesity problem. Consumer advocates have criticized these eateries for the preponderance of fat-laden choices on their menus, their “super-sized” portions and lack of nutritional guidance to diners.

In an avowed effort to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, McDonald’s Corporation has taken a first step toward turning the tide of obesity in America – or at least, of its own bad press on the subject.

Last month, the fast-food giant launched a line of entree salads, paired with actor Paul Newman’s signature salad dressings. Patrons at Golden Arches outlets nationwide can now get a choice of Caesar, California Cobb or Bacon Ranch salad, with or without meat, and a selection of Newman’s Own dressings.

For those who rely on fast-food outlets because of time or budget constraints, the news of some healthier menu choices seems encouraging. But has the world’s leading food retailer really turned over a new leaf ─ or merely a public relations fig leaf?
The numbers tell the story, and as usual, the devil is in the details. A plain McDonald’s Caesar salad contains 6.7 ounces of crisp mixed greens, tomatoes, shaved carrots and grated Parmesan cheese and weighs in at 90 calories, with 4 grams of fat. Take the grilled chicken version and you gain about 20 grams of protein, along with 120 calories and 3 fat grams. The chicken, served warm, is tender and pleasantly spicy. Skip the creamy Caesar dressing that comes with it (190 calories, 18 fat grams); instead, ask for the light balsamic vinaigrette dressing (90 calories). The result: a healthy, decent-tasting light lunch for under 300 calories. Not bad for fast food.

Opt for the bacon ranch salad and it’s another story. The basic model, mixed greens topped with cheddar and jack cheeses and bacon bits, has 140 calories, 10 fat grams. Take the grilled chicken option and you’re at 270 calories; go for crispy chicken and it’s 370 (21 fat grams). Toss on a packet of ranch dressing and you’re at 660 calories with 51 grams of fat.

You might as well have a Big Mac (590 calories, 34 grams) or – what the heck? – two slices of pepperoni pizza at Domino’s, a mere 560 calories and 20 fat grams. Salad? No thanks, I’m on a diet!
The pickings are no better – in fact worse – at other fast-food eateries. Burger King’s sole entry in the salad sweepstakes is its chicken Caesar. With Parmesan cheese, croutons and creamy dressing, it weighs in at 495 calories and 27 grams of fat.

Taco Bell gets the prize, however, for least healthy salads. Its express taco salad with chips has 620 calories (31 grams of fat); or go for the taco salad in a fried tostada shell, a whopping 790 calories and 42 grams of fat.

McDonald’s deserves credit for at least trying to offer more wholesome choices. But for those trying to eat a sensible, healthy diet, it’s still a case of “buyer beware.”

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