Big Macs and Fries: What You Pay Per Calorie

by Jason Kephart

Even with glimmers of hope for the recovery, consumers are still cutting back — especially when it comes to dining out. But turning to some of fast food’s biggest bargains in order to stretch your dollar in the recession may be one belt-tightening measure that could end up forcing you to loosen your buckle by a couple of notches.

Going out for cheap eats is an obvious way for consumers to keep their spending in check. That’s why fast food restaurants are seen as a good investment in tough times. McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut (among others) both reported stellar fourth quarters as proof. Bucking that trend were Burger King and CKE Restaurants, the operator of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Burger King, reported that it experienced “significant” traffic declines in March (it reported 1% same-store sales growth) and CKE’s same-store sales were down 2.7%. Nevertheless, that slide is still modest when compared with the double-digit losses at higher-end restaurant chains like Ruth’s Hospitality Group’s Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Benihana.

Bang for your buck continues to be one of the biggest selling points for fast food right now. But how much food are you really getting for your money? sought to find out which menu items are the costliest and cheapest per calorie. The results may surprise you. Looking at the cost per 100 calories of some items underscores what nutritionists have been saying for years: The cheapest calories typically aren’t the healthiest.

Here’s our dish-by-dish look at some popular menu items and their total cost per 100 calories — from the most expensive to the cheapest.

1. Premium Southwest Salad With Grilled Chicken

Cost per 100 calories: $1.47
Calories: 360
Calories from fat: 29%

McDonald’s answered the call of health-conscious consumers by adding salads to its menu in 2003. No one can deny that it’s a healthier option than, say, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, but it will cost you. Once we added some Newman’s Own low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing (another 40 calories and three grams of fat) for a little extra taste, this salad became the costliest per calorie dish on our menu.

2. Mandarin Chicken Salad

Cost per 100 calories: 96 cents
Calories: 540
Calories from fat: 43%

In the 1980s, Wendy’s was asking “Where’s the beef?” These days, the chain is a lot less meat-focused. Wendy’s now offers four varieties of salads and five varieties of chicken sandwiches (it also offers fish fillet sandwiches during Lent). Of course, burgers still reign supreme: There are currently 12 different types of hamburgers on the menu.

Photograph courtesy of KFC

3. Large Popcorn Chicken

Cost per 100 calories: 94 cents
Calories: 550
Calories from fat: 58%

Typically chicken is considered the cheaper meat. The average retail price for chicken is $1.75 a pound, 56% less than the average price of a pound of beef, according to the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association. But if you want KFC’s bite-sized popcorn chicken with the Colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices, be prepared to pay up. This is the most expensive per calorie item on our list that isn’t a salad.

4. Steak Gordita Baja

Taco Bell
Cost per 100 calories: 90 cents
Calories: 320
Calories from fat: 47%

Jack Russo, an analyst at financial-services firm Edward Jones, says Taco Bell is considered one of the industry’s leaders when it comes to menu innovation. The Gordita — a soft taco made using flatbread rather than a tortilla — may very well be proof of that. Since it first debuted in 1998, the Gordita has helped boost sales at the chain significantly, he says.

Photograph by Brian Chirls

5. Low-Fat Footlong Turkey Sandwich

Cost per 100 calories: 89 cents
Calories: 560
Calories from fat: 14%

Since the ads featuring Jared Fogle (who lost 245 pounds purely by eating Subway sandwiches) first launched in 2000, Subway’s sales have more than tripled to almost $13 billion. A Subway spokesman says that while several factors contributed to that growth, Jared’s weight-loss campaign played a significant role. Unfortunately for waist-conscious consumers, the low-fat sandwich comes at a premium per-calorie price compared to our other menu items.

6. Croissan’wich

Burger King
Cost per 100 calories: 75 cents
Calories: 330
Calories from fat: 44%

Breakfast has been driving the fast food industry. “That’s where all the growth has been,” says Steve Solomon, president of FSInsights, a menu development company. In February, Burger King’s CEO said that breakfast made up 15% of its sales. This rival to the Egg McMuffin made its debut in 1984.

Photograph courtesy of McDonald’s

7. Big Mac

Cost per 100 calories: 74 cents
Calories: 540
Calories from fat: 48%

Since its debut in 1968, the Big Mac has been McDonald’s flagship burger. More than 550 million are sold world-wide every year, according to the company. Compared to its double-decker rival, the Double Whopper, the Big Mac is pricier on a per-calorie basis.

8. Pepperoni Personal Pan Pizza

Pizza Hut
Cost per 100 calories: 68 cents
Calories: 660
Calories from fat: 42%

On a per 100 calorie basis, the six-inch pepperoni personal pan pizza lands in the middle of our roundup, but you can actually save yourself 20% (per 100 calories) by ordering the large pepperoni pan pizza and eating a slice. Doing so will also trim about 43% off the total calories.

Photograph courtesy of KFC

9. Toasted Wrap With Tender Roast Filet

Cost per 100 calories: 64 cents
Calories: 310
Calories from fat: 42%

KFC was slow on the uptake when it came to catering to the health-conscious crowd. It just started offering its grilled chicken lineup earlier this year — a move that probably should have made about five years ago, says Edward Jones’ Russo. “It’s what the consumer clearly wants today,” he says.

10. Medium French Fries

Cost per 100 calories: 58 cents
Calories: 380
Calories from fat: 26%

Before 1949, McDonald’s didn’t offer French fries; burgers came with a side of potato chips instead. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s — when potato farmer J.R. Simplot pioneered the first frozen French fry — that these fast food staples started becoming the popular McDonald’s side dish they are today.

Photograph courtesy of Dairy Queen

11. Butterfinger Blizzard

Dairy Queen
Cost per 100 calories: 49 cents
Calories: 990
Calories from fat: 31%

Surprisingly, the Butterfinger Blizzard — a vanilla-flavored milkshake with bits of Butterfinger candy bars chopped up in it — has one of the lowest percentage of calories from fat in the foods we looked at (that may be because it’s not made with real milk). In fact, the percentage is impressively close to what nutritionists generally recommend for a healthy diet — 30% of one’s daily calories can come from fat. But that doesn’t mean you should be going on an all-Blizzard diet. One of these large-size concoctions is a full 990 calories — nearly half your recommended daily intake.

12. Double Whopper With Cheese

Burger King
Cost per 100 calories: 49 cents
Calories: 1010
Calories from fat: 59%

The average person spends around $247 on beef a year, up from $48 in 2001. That amount of cash could buy you 49 Double Whoppers with cheese. And you’d get a pretty good return on your investment: The Double Whopper’s cost per 100 calories is about two-thirds of what the Big Mac costs.

Photograph by Thomas E. Weber

13. Fiesta Taco Salad

Taco Bell
Cost per 100 calories: 48 cents
Calories: 840
Calories from fat: 47%

The Fiesta Taco Salad is the only salad on Taco Bell’s menu, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s the healthiest item. In fact, the salad has the highest calories and fat content of any single item on the menu. Its 840 calories and 45 grams of fat are equal to four Crunchy Taco Supremes, three MexiMelts, or two Spicy Chicken Burritos.

14. Cheeseburger Slyder

White Castle
Cost per 100 calories: 41 cents
Calories: 170
Calories from fat: 47%

At 41 cents per 100 calories, White Castle’s snack-sized cheeseburger bested every other sandwich in our survey when it came to cost per calorie. In 1930, White Castle conducted a study (it later dubbed it the “Craveology” study) that monitored the health of a student who lived on nothing but the Slyders and water for 13 weeks. According to the company, the student maintained good health. Barbara Baron, a New York registered dietician, says you probably don’t want to follow suit. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to eat only one food item for 13 weeks,” she says.

Photograph by Brian Chirls

15. 32-Ounce Coca-Cola

Cost per 100 calories: 38 cents
Calories: 330
Calories from fat: 0

Here it is, the cheapest per calorie item in our survey of fast food land: the large Coca-Cola. Beloved by many, but eyed by some as a major contributor to the obesity problems in this country. Our brains process calories from liquids differently than those from solid food, so we don’t feel full and are more likely to overeat, says Karen Ansel, a spokeswoman for the New York State Dietetic Association. If you really need to have your soda with your meal, order a Diet Coke.


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