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Why McDonald’s Salads May Not Be as Healthy as They Seem

You may think McDonald's salads are a healthier choice, but you might be better off ordering something else from the menu.

RIMINI, ITALY - MAY 30, 2014: people waiting for the food service at Mc Donalds desk in the shopping mall " Le Befane " . The fast food company was founded in 1940 in San Bernardino, California.View Apart/Shutterstock

McDonald’s salads may have contained a dangerous parasite

In July 2018, an outbreak of foodborne illness was linked to salads sold at McDonald’s. More than 500 people in 15 states—mainly in the Midwest—got sick with cyclosporiasis, and some were hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition is caused by a microscopic parasite that can cause stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. In response to the outbreak, McDonald’s stopped selling salads in 3,000 of its stores temporarily and released this statement: “Out of an abundance of caution, we voluntarily stopped selling salads at impacted restaurants until we can switch to another lettuce blend supplier.”

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Your McDonald’s salad may be a salt bomb

McDonald’s salads can also be high in sodium. Why? The chicken is highly seasoned. On top of that, several salads also include bacon and come with lots of cheese. Dressings can also contain a lot of sodium. “All of that together adds up from a calorie perspective but also from a salt perspective,” says Christy Brissette, RDN, founder and president of 80Twenty Nutrition. The Bacon Ranch Salad with Buttermilk Crispy Chicken, for example, contains 1,110 milligrams of sodium—nearly half the daily recommended amount. That’s important, because too much salt can make you sick.

Fried Chicken Fillet Stephen Tjipto Hartono/Shutterstock

A McDonald’s salad isn’t necessarily the lowest-calorie option

You may think you’re saving a lot of calories by forgoing a burger at McDonald’s, but that’s not always true. The Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad packs 520 calories, with 25 grams of fat. That’s in part because the chicken is deep-fried. Opt for the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad instead. Also, here’s a drink you should think twice about ordering at McDonald’s.

Bread texture. Bread pattern as background.Nalaphotos/Shutterstock

Your McDonald’s salad may contain more carbs than you think

Chicken and greens may seem like a smart choice if you’re trying to cut down on carbs. But the Southwest Crispy Chicken Salad contains 44 grams of carbohydrates—the equivalent of three slices of bread, Brissette says. They come from the salad’s tortilla chips, the breading on the chicken, and sugar hiding in the Cilantro Lime glaze. A smarter choice? Skip the chips and the dressing. 

Mixed salad vegetableJIRO_TERMSIRISAKUL/Shutterstock

You don’t know how long that lettuce has been around

When pre-cut vegetables sit around, their nutritional value can diminish, Brissette says. McDonald’s says they prepare their salads fresh daily. “But in terms of how often do those greens come in, when were those little carrots processed, we don’t really know,” Brissette says. Don’t miss these things McDonald’s employees won’t tell you.

Fresh young leaves of chard for salad in a dark ceramic dish on black concrete background. Selective focus. Copy space. Top view.Katarzyna Hurova/Shutterstock

McDonald’s salads may contain more fiber than they used to

Iceberg lettuce used to be a mainstay of the McDonald’s salad. But in 2015, in response to changing consumer tastes, the chain switched in more baby kale, spinach, and romaine. That’s good news, nutritionally. “Iceberg lettuce doesn’t have any fiber and it doesn’t have much in terms of nutrition,” Brissette says. “So pick a salad that has the mixed greens or some romaine and at least you’re going to be getting some fiber in your salad, which is going to help you stay more satisfied over time.” Check out these 75 fun facts about McDonald’s.

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The chicken on your McDonald’s salad is healthier than it used to be

In 2015, McDonald’s emoved maltodextrin, which is used for browning, and sodium phosphates, which were used to keep the chicken moist, in favor of “simple, clean ingredients.” McDonald’s also stopped grilling the chicken in liquid margarine, opting for a blend of olive and canola oil and herbal seasoning. Look back at other ways  McDonald’s menu has changed over the years.

Romaine lettuce salad over stone table. Top view with copy spaceEvgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock

McDonald’s salads are far from the most popular item on the menu

As it turns out, when people go to McDonald’s, they might not want a salad after all. Burgers, Big Macs and fries are still most the popular choices at this fast food spot. In fact, these are the best-selling items at McDonald’s. Still, with more than 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, even selling a few salads still adds up to a lot of lettuce. While you still need to be careful when ordering McDonald’s salads, they’re still healthier than they have been in the past.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Elisabetta Politi, CDE, MPH, RD, on October 13, 2019