June 5, 2003 -- Many fast-food chains are now offering salads on their menus, but before you applaud yourself for choosing fresh greens over a burger and fries, take a closer look at the salad ingredients.
Good Morning America's food editor, Sara Moulton, tested 30 salads from some of the largest national fast-food chains in the world, including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway and a smaller chain, Au Bon Pain.
In some cases, based on the fat and calorie count, diners would be better off choosing a burger, Moulton says.
Here are Moulton's findings:
McDonald's: McDonald's has launched an ad campaign touting its premium salads, but some of the ingredients deserve closer scrutiny.
"The good news first: McDonald's is trying," Moulton said. "They use great grape tomatoes and they have a few 'real greens' in the bunch, but on the whole, the salad is pure iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce has zero nutrients and zero grams of fiber. Romaine lettuce, on the other hand, has 1 gram of fiber per six leaves, and 32 percent of your daily intake of vitamin C. "
At McDonald's you can choose from the following options as a top for the restaurant's basic salads: Bacon Ranch, Caesar or California Cobb, all of which come with either grilled or crispy fried chicken.
The Grilled Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad contains 270 calories and 13 grams of fat. With light balsamic vinaigrette dressing, it totals 360 calories and 21 grams of fat.
"The grilled chicken is too over-seasoned and salty," Moulton said. "The fried chicken is tasty, but if you have a California Cobb Salad with Crispy Chicken and ranch dressing it's a total of 670 calories and 53 grams of fat."
That is only 130 calories less than a Big Mac and small fries, which together contain 800 calories. Furthermore, the Big Mac and small fries is 6 grams lower in fat than the salad. If you choose the four-piece McNuggets and small fries, instead, it's only 430 calories and 26 grams of fat.
Burger King: Burger King only offers two salads: a side salad and a Chicken Caesar salad.
"The chicken is very salty and dry, with again all iceberg lettuce," Moulton said. "The creamy Caesar dressing is nice though."
If you have the salad with chicken, croutons and creamy Caesar dressing it will gain you 390 calories, 26 grams of fat, and 1,370 milligrams of sodium. For another 65 calories and 3 fewer grams of fat, you can have a double hamburger, which contains 455 calories and 23 grams of fat.
Subway: The idea behind Subway's salads: Take your submarine sandwich topping and put it over a salad base.
"Subway is making an effort to keep their salads low in calories and fat with their seven salads under 6 grams of fat, but I say, don't do it," Moulton said. "If you find yourself at Subway, have a sub."
The base salad consists of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, pickled jalapeno peppers, and sweet pickles. Calories for these aren't high, but the salad lacks taste, Moulton said.
"The Veggie Delite salad is only 50 calories, but it's 50 not very good-tasting calories, so why waste it?" Moulton said. It also has just 1 gram of fat.
By contrast, the Veggie Delite sandwich is 230 calories and 3 grams of fat, and the steak sandwich without cheese and oil is 320 calories and 7 grams of fat with 45 percent of the daily dose of iron.
By contrast, the steak and cheese salad is "180 awful-tasting calories with 8 grams of fat," Moulton says.
Wendy's: In terms of taste, Wendy's salads did well. Just last week, the chain released a new salad, the Southwest Chicken Caesar Salad. Available only through August, it has romaine lettuce, corn, black beans and grape tomatoes. When you add croutons and Southwest Caesar Dressing, it adds up to 495 calories and 32 grams of fat.
"The chicken BLT has the best chicken, a decent cheese, and good real bacon bits, plus nice grape tomatoes," Moulton salad. "Also, the base salad is mixed greens, not just iceberg lettuce, though the majority of ones we tried had more iceberg than greens."
When the "yummy-tasting blue cheese" dressing is added it comes to a total of 570 cal and 43 grams of fat, Moulton said. The dressings tend to add a minimum of 100 calories.
"With the mandarin chicken salad, we liked the crunch of the crispy noodles, the orange slices and Oriental sesame dressing, and romaine lettuce," Moulton said. It totaled 460 calories and 22 grams of fat.
Finally, the Taco Supremo Salad, which includes chili, sour cream, salsa, and chips, totals 670 calories and 34 grams of fat. That is just 10 calories and 4 grams of fat less than a kids'-size fries and classic single burger, which totals 660 calories and 30 grams of fat.
Au Bon Pain: "Overall, Au Bon Pain salads have the best base, nice 'real' greens and vegetables," Moulton said. "There are some salads you want to have over others."
Moulton said she didn't like the Charbroiled Salmon Filet Salad because the salmon was too fishy and didn't take charbroiled. With light olive oil dressing, it contained 270 calories and 13 grams of fat.
The Mediterranean Chicken Salad had crispy lettuce, mild feta cheese, tender chickens, real olives and tasty Mediterranean dressing. It had 420 calories and 13 grams of fat, but the down side was that it also had more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium.
"The Thai Chicken Salad was also very nice, but the corresponding dressing was way too sweet and artificial-tasting," Moulton said. The salad contains 430 calories and 32 grams of fat, while the Thai Chicken Sandwich has 490 calories and 7 grams of fat, which is significantly less.
Unfortunately, the sandwich also has more than 1,300 milligrams of sodium.