Fast Food Nation: A Nutritional Exploration of the Major Chains

Which fast food chain has the most nutritious food and the most meal options?

Fast Food Chains
Fast food logos via Food Crisis in the United States

I try to not indulge too often, but I love fast food. McDonald’s is my favorite chain and I’d argue they’ve really turned things around with a revamp in quality and image. I would even dare say the quality of some items rival fast casual chains that are considered a tier above - have you tried their fresh beef quarter pounders?

It got me thinking: how do the fast food chains actually compare with each other? It’s a broad question so I’ve decided to dedicate this post to nutrition. Now, I’m not advocating for fast food as a staple of a balanced diet, but I think we all partake on occasion and if we’re indulging we might as well make educated decisions.

Check out my code for this project here.

Nutritional Criteria

To balance out my Python journey I’ve also started getting more active and lifting weights (small weights, but still weights). With that on my mind, I decided to bring some of that gym rat wisdom to this project. I set nutritional goals based on four daily calorie intake scenarios: 1,500, 2,000, 2,500, and 3,000. I referred to the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations to set nutritional goals for each scenario. My analysis assumes that this meal will represent 40% of each daily goal and I examine various types of meal for each calorie scenario: entrée only; entrée and side; and entrée, side, and desert.

Scenario Calories Carbs, g Sugar, g Fat, g Example
0 1,500 225 19 50 Female cutting weight
1 2,000 300 25 67 Average female; male cutting weight
2 2,500 375 31 83 Active or bulking female; average male
3 3,000 450 38 100 Active or bulking male

The Contestants

I selected four of the largest fast food chains in the country: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. I scraped nutritional data for every menu item through Nutritionix’s API. To perform a meal-based nutritional analysis, I categorized each item by keywords in the item name: entrée, side, drink, and dessert. Next, I created every combination possible for each meal type: entrée only; entrée and side; and entrée, side, and dessert. Finally, I narrowed down these combinations based on nutritional goals for each calorie scenario.

Which chain offers the most nutritious items?

Surprisingly, Taco Bell won this round! The radar charts below plot the average nutritional profile for entrées, sides, and desserts, respectively.

For entrées, Taco Bell and Wendy’s are the healthiest, though Taco Bell is heavier on carbs and Wendy’s is heavier on fat. For sides, Taco Bell and McDonald’s have almost identical profiles with lower carb and fat content than the other chains. For desserts, Taco Bell is the healthiest on all counts with lower sugar content by a wide margin - half as much as the competitors.

Nutritional profile for entrées
Average nutritional profile for entrées
Nutritional profile for sides
Average nutritional profile for sides
Nutritional profile for desserts
Average nutritional profile for desserts

Which chain has the most options?

Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s won on options! The bubble charts below plot the number of meal options that meet our nutritional criteria in each scenario. The size of the bubble correlates with the number of options.

In the majority of calorie scenarios and meal types, McDonald’s had the most meal options. Interestingly, Taco Bell tended to have the most meal options in lower calorie scenarios. However, there is a caveat for Taco Bell: many of their entrée options are smaller-portioned and people tend to order multiple in a sitting. This is great for flexibility in constructing a meal, but it can be dangerously easy to overdo it.

Number of entrée options
Number of entrées that meet our nutritional criteria
Number of entrée & side options
Number of entrée & side meals that meet our nutritional criteria
Number of entrée, side & dessert options
Number of entrée, side & dessert meals that meet our nutritional criteria

The Verdict: McDonald’s!

Though Taco Bell won on having healthier menu items on average, I have to hand it to McDonald’s in the showdown. Our weakness is Taco Bell’s weakness: their items are designed in smaller portions to encourage customers to order in multiples. While it’s fun to mix and match tacos, it’s too easy to overdo it.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, won on having the most meal options that meet our nutritional criteria. They have over 6,000 meal options if you’re ordering an entrée, side, and dessert! As part of the company’s turnaround, McDonald’s has been targeting a younger, healthier customer group and the data shows it hasn’t just been a marketing effort - they truly do have more nutritious options.

Nutritionix API