Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Panera is Bad For You

McDonald's is always the convenient whipping boy for health activists saying that McDonald's food is bad for you. But, that's a little too easy, it's like picking on the gay kid in high school (too soon?). Everyone knows that McDonald's is bad for you, but they're always the example of how fast food is bad for you. I don't understand why, after they go after McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, they leave a place like Panera alone.

I'm not going to lie, I hate Panera for reasons unrelated to it's healthiness. I spent about 6 months working on a project a couple of years ago in which we had 2 or 3 lunch meetings a week. At those meetings we almost always had Panera, and aside from the French onion soup and lemonade, I never liked any of their food. Many times a sandwich would sound good but actually taste horrible. But, I always kinda thought Panera's food was better for me than typical fast food.

It's not. Panera's just as bad, if not worse, than McDonald's. For instance, half a smoked ham and swiss sandwich has more sodium than a McDonald's double cheeseburger (1220mg to 1150mg) and only 80 calories less and 7g fat less than the double cheeseburger. That's half a sandwich, hardly a meal. So if you're doing the Pick Two menu at Panera, you're going to get a salad to be a little healthier than the fries you're going to get at McDonald's, I chose the half fuji apple chicken salad. Well, you're obviously going to do better on the sodium front at Panera. Except, you're not. You're going to get 410mg of salt in that salad as opposed to 270mg in a medium fries. Again, the salad does better on the calorie front with 260g to 360g, but the fat is almost even 15g to 17g. So for a total meal you get 610 calories, 30g of fat and 1630mg of sodium at Panera. At McDonald's you get 810 calories, 39g of fat and 1570mg of sodium (I added 2 ketchup packets at McDonald's).  If you have high blood pressure or any other heart related problem, you just screwed yourself by going to Panera. If you're relatively heart healthy, you saved 200 calories and 9 g of fat by eating at Panera, unless you ate that pesky little baguette they throw on your tray. Then you give up 180 calories and add another 440mg of sodium. Your carb total is even between the 2 meals.

For my money, there's not a dime's worth of difference in the nutritive value of the 2 meals, but the Panera one is much more dishonest. In my mind a half sandwich half salad lunch should be way better for me than a double cheeseburger and fries. If I'm not informed of my caloric or sodium intake, I might be more willing to splurge a little for dinner and have some chocolate cake for dessert or eat a heavier meal and still think I didn't go over what I should be eating in a day.

Now, let's say I'm trying to eat healthier and actively seeking a good for me meal at Panera and McDonald's without looking at the nutrition guides on their websites. So, looking at their menus (I did not cherry pick here, I chose these meals by what sounded healthiest and what I would like to eat, except at Panera I chose turkey, which I hate and will not eat, but turkey is the best for you meat either restaurant carries.) I chose 2 grilled chicken wraps and a side garden fresh salad. At Panera, I chose the half smoked turkey sandwich and the half orchard harvest chicken salad. My McDonald's meal totals 570 calories, 21g of fat, 1240mg of sodium and 64g of carbohydrates. My Panera meal totals 740 calories, 25g of fat, 1930mg of sodium and 84g of carbohydrates. If you somehow don't eat the baguette that shows up on your tray at Panera you still get 560 calories, 24g of fat, 1490mg of sodium and 52g of carbohydrates. Panera loses in all categories except carbohydrates if you don't eat the bread, but be honest with yourself, you're going to eat that baguette.

In both cases, trying to eat healthy or ordering what I want, I would rather eat the McDonald's meal (and I don't like McDonald's either). Neither place is particularly good for you, but, at least at McDonald's you're not fooling yourself into thinking you're eating something healthy. Panera somehow escapes people's scorn when it comes to serving bad for you food. I don't think they should, they're even more guilty of making bad for you food, because they serve it under the guise (whether intentional or not) that the food is fresh and good for you. I can't speak to whether it's fresh or not, but it's definitely not good for you.

I encourage you to play my little game with both restaurants' handy nutrition calculators; Panera and McDonald's. Or go one step further and compare Panera to your favorite boogeyman of negative nutrition and see how they stack up.

8 comments:

JJSKCK said...

Exactly. Fast food always gets a bad rap (deservedly so) but "fast casual" places generally pack a considerably larger calorie punch.

It has always frustrated the hell out of me that people make heart attack comments regarding cheeseburgers but then go eat a Panera salad with 800 calories of dressing and tortilla strips all over it.

At least I'm full after I eat the cheeseburger.

Donna said...

I don't know of anyplace you can eat out and call it healthy. Subway limits calories, but the sodium is through the roof. I suppose Olive Garden's salad is nutritious and low-fat, but who's going to eat it without the breadsticks and the over-salted soup?

Faith said...

I personally love their tomato mozzarella panini sandwich. I wish I could eat them every day!

I used to get the "pick two" with half of that sandwich, and a half of a classic cafe salad (which comes with their lowfat balsamic vinaigrette, which is really yummy, IMO). But the location I go to was consistently giving me shitty lettuce on my salad, and I wound up picking it down to being a couple of bites by the time I'd gotten all the bad lettuce out of there. So I tried their lowfat garden veggie soup instead one time, and really liked that combo all together.

It has 490 cals, 17 grams of fat, 1470 mg of sodium, and 67 grams of carbs. The carbs are the only thing that keep me from eating it more often, to be honest. Well, and the sodium.

People need to take advantage of those online nutrition calculators more often. It took me a while to figure out that combo, since I'm not much of a soup person really, but it's not all that bad, calorie or fat-wise, AND it's really filling! Oh, and the sandwich is freaking DELICIOUS. Better than a McD's hamburger, by far!

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

Thank you! I've been saying this for a while now. I noticed it when I tried to find healthier places to eat out while on a diet and trying to lower my sodium intake. Panera seemed like it would be a perfect place to eat when on a diet, but when I actually checked out the nutrition information I found my assumption was wrong. Very wrong.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. And yet crap like this was plastered on the yahoo or MSN homepage a couple weeks ago:

http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/food/americas-top-5-healthiest-fast-food-restaurants-2397396/

Anonymous said...

the restaurant comparison is fantastic and informative (fast food is fast food, you simply cannot keep mass quantities of food available at the drop of a hat w/o astronomical sodium and fat content); too bad you had to start out with the obnoxious homophobe comment. come on.

Anonymous said...

In all complete honesty, if you tried to make the food you eat at Panera at home (a ham sandwich & can of soup) you're going to have just as many calories and just as much sodium if not more. However, if you were to make a chesseburger & fries at home and you baked the fries rather than cooking it won't be as bad as going to McDonald's. Anyone can compare two things and make one look better than the other - it's called being biased and there's a few extremely important things you forgot to touch base on in this article. First, all you've done is report the total fat - there are two kinds of fat good fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and bad fat (saturated and trans fat). Trans fat is the worst fat for you, this is what causes so many heart problems and you won't find an ounce of this in Panera's food, yet it's right on the label for the double cheeseburger. As far as the comment about the fries - they're fried and that's not good for you, but they're still potatoes so sure they won't be that bad, but like you said you put ketchup on your fries and when you look at the label that is ALL sugar and if you don't put ketchup on them you're likely to put more salt which just ups the sodium. Sure, Panera might not be as healthy as sitting down and eating plain spinach and carrots, but honestly who's going to do that?

Panera - Pick 2: Smoked Turkey Sandwich, Classic Salad & Apple - 380 calories (only 60 calories from fat) 7g fat (only 1g saturated and no trans fat), 960 mg sodium, 7g fiber (this is extremely good because fiber helps remove the bad cholesterol from your body and help you maintain your weight). 45% Vitamin A 60% Vitamin C

McDonald's - Double Cheeseburger, Small french fry - 670 calories (310 from fat), 34g fat (12 saturated, 1.5 trans fat), 1310mg sodium, 10% Vitamin A, 10% Vitamin C.