Special Report

America's Least Healthy Fast-Food Chains


To determine the least healthy fast-food restaurants, 24/7 Wall St. collected nutrition information on the 50 largest fast-food chains by U.S. systemwide sales for 2013 as reported by QSR, a fast-food publication. Data were collected from Nutritionix, a publicly-available online database of restaurants that includes nutritional information for all menu items.

In an effort to identify comparable fast-food restaurants, we excluded a number of restaurants from our analysis. We did not consider restaurants like Einstein Bros. Bagels or Krispy Kreme, which predominantly serve breakfast items. Chains such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Jamba Juice were also excluded because their menus are dominated by drinks. Dairy Queen and Baskin-Robbins were excluded for exclusively offering dessert items.

Pizza restaurants were particularly problematic because serving sizes were often listed as a single slice, which nutritional experts agreed did not constitute a meal. For this reason, we were forced to exclude Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, and others from our analysis. Similarly, Mexican restaurants, including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Qdoba Mexican Grill, among others, were excluded because nutritional information was not provided for entire meals. While Panera Bread was listed on QSR’s top-50 rank, it was excluded as a fast-food restaurant from our list.

Lastly, our analysis attempts to identify restaurants that have the potential to serve large segments of the population. For this reason, we did not consider restaurants with fewer than 750 locations in the U.S. For the remaining 20 restaurants, menu items were separated into meals and sides. Desserts, drinks, family-size items, and kid’s menus were not considered.

For the six nutritional measures included in our analysis — calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrates, and sugar — we compared each menu item to the equivalent nutrient’s 60th-percentile, calculated from the nutritional measures for all menu items across the 20 restaurants considered. This allowed us to determine the percentage of meals on a restaurant’s menu that exceeded the 60th-percentile cutoff in each nutritional category.

Because being labeled unhealthy in one category was not mutually exclusive with being unhealthy in another category, we used a geometric mean to compute our index. Lower index scores indicated healthier options. We employed the same methodology for sides. Our composite index is the geometric mean of both the meals and sides indices.

One purpose of our analysis was to determine how easily consumers can find healthy options when ordering at these restaurants, if they choose to eat healthy. By using the 60th-percentile, we get a broad indication of the quality of a restaurant’s menu. To be sure, every restaurant has one or two items that are extremely unhealthy for you. However, provided a restaurant’s entire menu was not grossly unhealthy, the restaurant could still perform reasonably well on our index.

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