The burger wars are heating up, and Wendy’s might be winning. The sixth-largest fast food chain in America has taken to Twitter to remind people its beef is “fresh, never frozen.” And it’s not afraid to take on its bigger rivals. When McDonald’s recently announced it would start using fresh beef in its signature Quarter Pounders, Wendy’s fired back:
.@McDonalds So you’ll still use frozen beef in MOST of your burgers in ALL of your restaurants? Asking for a friend.
— Wendy's (@Wendys) March 30, 2017
The snarky missive captured people’s attention, but it got us wondering: Does fresh versus frozen really matter when you’re grabbing a fast food burger? And can one of the two chains really be said to offer hungry diners a better sandwich? The question sounds pretty trite, until you consider what’s at stake — and we don’t just mean whether your road trip meal is going to pass muster.
McDonald’s has lost 500 million customers since 2012, when it eliminated the beloved Dollar Menu, the Chicago Tribune reported. Introducing all-day Egg McMuffins and other breakfast items helped bring some people back, and the chain hopes a switch to more wholesome-seeming ingredients — such as the fresh-beef burgers — will get even more people to start visiting the Golden Arches again.
Rival Wendy’s has problems of its own. For years, it’s been stuck in third place among American burger joints, behind McDonald’s and Burger King. Sales are flat, and the seemingly never-ending presidential election in 2016 meant fewer people were buying burgers (at least according to the company’s CEO). The attention-grabbing tweets might be a way to remind fickle diners that Wendy’s is an option — and (allegedly) a better-tasting one than McDonald’s.
Wendy’s might be winning the marketing game right now, but what about the actual food? We decided there was only one way to find out which drive-thru staple was better: taste the burgers ourselves.
For this totally nonscientific study, I decided to compare two classic burgers at each chain. I ordered one sandwich each from McDonald’s and Wendy’s, along with fries. (Who eats burgers without fries?) Then, I compared each meal on factors such as taste, price, presentation, and nutrition. My husband happily agreed to provide a second opinion for the tasting portion of the test. Here are the contenders.
From McDonald’s: McDonald’s had seven burgers on its menu. I chose the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a basic burger the Golden Arches has served up since 1972. According to the McDonald’s website, it’s “a quarter pound of 100% pure beef with absolutely no fillers, additives or preservatives. Just a pinch of salt and pepper, and seared on our grills so it’s thick and juicy. Layered with two slices of melty cheese, slivered onions and tangy pickles on a sesame seed bun.”
From Wendy’s: Wendy’s highlights 10 burgers on its online menu, from the alarming-looking Dave’s Triple to the basic Jr. Hamburger. I kept it simple by selecting The Dave’s Single, which seemed most similar to the Quarter Pounder. According to Wendy’s website, it’s “a quarter-pound of 100% real North American ground beef and the freshest premium toppings on a warm toasted bun.”
First question: How do these rival patties stand up in the nutrition department?
McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 530 calories and 27 grams of total fat, including 13 grams of saturated fat and 1½ grams of trans fats. It has 1,090 milligrams of sodium and 41 grams of carbs. The Quarter Pounder also has 25% of the FDA’s recommended daily intake of iron, 15% of the daily value for calcium, and 20% of the daily value for vitamin A.
A medium order of McDonald’s fries contained 340 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 44 grams of carbs, along with 20% of the daily value of vitamin C.
Wendy’s Dave’s Single clocks in at 570 calories. It has 34 grams of total fat, including 13 grams of saturated fat and 1½ grams of trans fat, as well as 1,230 milligrams of sodium and 39 grams of carbohydrates. In terms of nutrients, it has 25% of the FDA’s recommended daily value of iron, 20% of the daily value for calcium, and 15% of the daily value of vitamin A. The sandwich also has 30 grams of protein.
A medium order of Wendy’s fries had 420 calories, 19 grams of fat, 56 grams of carbohydrates, and 15% of the daily value for vitamin C. The fries also had 420 milligrams of sodium, almost double the amount in the McDonald’s fries.
Nutrition: The winner
Neither of these sandwiches is exactly a home run, health-wise. Each contains more than a quarter of the 2,000 daily calories that most adults are advised to consume — and that’s before you add common extras, such as fries. Both are also heavy on saturated fat, contain small amounts of unhealthy trans fats, and are high in sodium. This is junk food, plain and simple.
That said, McDonald’s does seem to edge out Wendy’s in the nutrition category. The Quarter Pounder has 50 fewer calories than the Dave’s Single and 190 fewer milligrams of sodium. And the Quarter Pounder is lower in overall fat than the Wendy’s burger, though the saturated fat content is the same. The Quarter Pounder has more vitamin A, and Dave’s Single has more calcium.
In the fries category, McDonald’s edge is even stronger. The same-size order of spuds contains significantly fewer calories and less salt.
McDonald’s might beat Wendy’s in the nutrition category, but which burger scores a perfect 10 in the looks department?
No one’s expecting a perfectly plated meal from a fast food joint, but presentation matters, even when you’re grabbing a quick burger. Unfortunately, food that looks tantalizing in an advertisement can appear distinctly lackluster in person. When Consumer Reports investigated in 2014, they found that items ordered at restaurants, such as Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Taco Bell, often bore only the faintest resemblance to the dolled-up versions in ads. “Misshapen,” “lopsided,” and “goopy” were among the words used to describe what testers actually received.
In our test, neither sandwich looked exactly like what we saw online (big surprise), but one came a bit closer.
Presentation: The winner
In advertisements for the Dave’s Single, a juicy-looking patty is piled high with fresh tomatoes, red onions, pickles, and what appears to be romaine lettuce, all served on a perfectly shaped bun. In reality, the bun on the burger I ordered was squished and kind of misshapen, probably as a result of being wrapped in foil paper and then stuffed in a bag. The lettuce was iceberg, not romaine.
The Quarter Pounder pictured online isn’t quite as towering as the Wendy’s sandwich, and it doesn’t have as many toppings. The simpler construction seems to yield a burger that better matches the advertising. The Quarter Pounder was delivered in a cardboard box, which kept it from getting squished. Inside was a sandwich on a perfectly round sesame-seed bun — exactly the kind of uniform appearance you’d expect from the world’s preeminent purveyors of fast food. But the meat wasn’t as juicy-looking as it was in the picture, and the cheese wasn’t as melty.
Now, on to the real test: Which burger tasted better?
Quarter Pounder taste test
McDonald’s has mastered the art (or science) of creating predictable-tasting food, and it showed in the Quarter Pounder taste test. For better or for worse, the sandwich tasted exactly how I remember Quarter Pounders tasting when I was a kid.
The lack of toppings, such as lettuce and tomato, on the Quarter Pounder might be a turnoff to some, but there was something pleasing about its simplicity. The beef, however, was dry and didn’t have much flavor beyond that of salt — a big downside in a sandwich where the meat is the main element.
The condiments were basic, just ketchup and mustard, and weren’t slathered on so thick that the sandwich was messy to eat. The bun was springy and did a good job holding everything together without disintegrating (though the fact that the meat wasn’t juicy at all also helped). It had also been grilled. And while I’m generally not a huge fan of either pickles or onions on a burger, they were OK here. Both the white onions and the pickles added a little crunch and some extra flavor without being overpowering.
Like the burger itself, the french fries tasted like you would expect McDonald’s fries to taste: salty, crispy, and pretty satisfying.
Dave’s Single taste test
Going into the taste test, I was skeptical of Wendy’s claim that fresh beef would produce a markedly better-tasting burger. Fast food is fast food, I reasoned. But I was wrong. The Dave’s Single was much tastier than its rival, more similar to the Single Cheeseburger at In-n-Out (where I’d normally go if I were craving a fast food burger) than the Quarter Pounder. The meat was more coarsely ground and less uniform-looking that the McDonald’s patty; it was also juicier. I also liked that the burger came with tomato and lettuce.
The burger wasn’t perfect, though. Unlike McDonald’s, which server its burger on a warm, grilled bun, the Wendy’s bun was cool to the touch, though it did appear to have been grilled or toasted. Worse, whoever had assembled the sandwich had used a heavy hand with the condiments. There was just way too much mayo. In theory, the Wendy’s burger would have benefited from the using more flavorful red onions over white, but with just two measly slices, they didn’t add much oomph. The bun was also noticeably sweeter than the McDonald’s bun, in addition to being squishier.
Wendy’s fries were thicker-cut than those from McDonald’s, and they tasted more like real potatoes. (Some fries still had some potato skin on them.) “Wendy’s fries are decent,” my husband announced in a surprised voice. But they weren’t as crispy as the McDonald’s fries, and they were a bit greasier and saltier.
Before we declare the winner of the burger challenge, there’s one more factor to consider: price.
Scoring a filling meal for less than $10 is one of the big appeals of fast food. Both of the sandwiches (which were purchased at restaurants in San Diego, California) were similarly priced, though one chain had a slight advantage if you’re counting your pennies.
- $4.49 for the burger, plus $2.39 for a medium order of french fries
- Total cost before tax: $6.88
Quarter Pounder with Cheese:
- $4.99 for the burger, plus $2.49 for a medium order of french fries
- Total cost before tax: $7.48
Winner: Wendy’s beat McDonald’s on price by 60 cents.
Judging on taste alone, the Wendy’s burger is the clear winner over McDonald’s. The beef tasted better, and it had better toppings (aside from the overabundance of mayo). My co-taster agreed: “The Wendy’s burger, easily.” We both also preferred the Wendy’s fries over the McDonald’s fries, though that was a closer call.
Ironically, I felt the simpler presentation of the McDonald’s burger meant it would have benefited more from the use of the fresh meat. With such limited toppings, the drier and less beefy flavor of the burger was hard to overcome. McDonald’s plans to start using fresh beef in its Quarter Pounders in 2018, and that might do a lot to elevate the sandwich.
One other note: Nostalgic diners might favor the Quarter Pounder over the Dave’s Single. Wendy’s burger definitely tastes better, but if you’re on a Proustian quest to recapture the flavors of childhood visits to the drive-thru, McDonald’s is probably what you’re looking for.
Once you factor in the other categories, such as price, nutrition, and presentation, McDonald’s showing improves. The Golden Arches offering was lower in calories and looked better in its box. But Wendy’s beat it on price. Taking everything into account, the final winner of the burger battle is clear: Wendy’s.