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.