Fast-Food Breakfast Sandwiches: Not All Are Created Equal

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It gives you nutrition, energy, and fills you up before lunchtime rolls around.

For decades, if not centuries, the typical breakfast, drawing roots from England and other European nations, has included any one or a combination of the following: eggs, bread, cheese, and a form of meat protein like bacon, ham or steak.

You would find these elements independent of one another, separated on a plate and eaten at a table with a fork and knife. That is, until the United States’ western expansion after the Civil War.

Author Heather Arndt Anderson wrote about the “breakfast sandwich” in her book, “Breakfast: A History.”

Anderson states the breakfast sandwich became part of the dietary lexicon for pioneers eating on the go, if you will. Ham and egg sandwich in one hand and reigns steering their wagons westward in the other.

Here, she references when a recipe for the breakfast sandwich was first published in 1897 – in Maude C. Cooke’s cookbook “Breakfast, Dinner and Supper, or What to Eat and How to Prepare It.”

The ingredients included stale bread and chopped meat. Dip that in a mixture of milk and an egg and fry it in a pan until brown.

Fast forward a century and that same combination of ingredients has been altered slightly to appeal to both convention and convenience.

Still not much has changed. Today, the breakfast sandwich has been reinvented numerous times depending on the restaurant chain, but aims at providing the same satiation to the one-handed diner, only instead of reigns, a steering wheel.

While creating a breakfast sandwich at home is one of the easiest meals to prepare, restaurant and coffee chains have turned the menu item into a multi-billion dollar success appealing to people on the go and on a budget.

Despite similarities in composition and construction, how do these breakfast sandwiches stack up? We’ve taken some of the most popular fast-food chains, put them to a taste test and compared how the American breakfast sandwich differs in a crowded and hungry marketplace.

McDonald’s Breakfast Sandwich – I’m Lovin’ It

For years, the golden arches have been the go-to drive thru for a quick, cheap meal for those on the way to work or school.

A staple so popular, the chain expanded its breakfast offerings past the 10:30 a.m. cutoff to a 24/7 mainstay.

As part of their myriad breakfast menu items, that include everything from pancakes to parfaits, is the breakfast sandwich.

Egg McMuffin; Sausage McMuffin with Egg; Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit, Sausage Biscuit with Egg; Bacon, Egg and Cheese McGriddle…the list goes on.

The McMuffin is a family of breakfast sandwiches in various sizes and configurations – the Egg McMuffin was McDonald’s signature breakfast sandwich.

Herb Peterson created the layered breakfast and put it on the menu in 1972. It consisted of a slice of Canadian bacon, cheese, and a griddle-fried egg, of which was given its signature round appearance by being cooked inside of a ring.

By 1984, a sausage patty substituted the ham, and the Sausage McMuffin was born.

So, in sticking with the basics, we tested the good ol’ fashioned Sausage McMuffin for a reasonable $1.19, before tax.

Sausage McMuffin Nutritional Facts:

Despite how light the bag felt as I took it from the friendly young lady at the drive-thru window, for the most part, the meal did its job.

McDonald’s Breakfast Sandwich Bag

The morning hunger pang was gone, however, at 400 calories, 780 mg of sodium and 25 grams of fat, the guilt started to set in.

McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin

While examining the specimen, the packaging is what you’d expect. A simple wrapper – and it was obvious this particular sandwich didn’t make the photoshoot cut – the cheese wasn’t quite melted in spots and its heftiness was minimal.

McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin

While it wasn’t the prettiest sandwich, it was probably the saltiness that was most pucker-worthy. A large coffee was the only thing that could wash the taste out.

McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin

When discussing size and nutritional value, the more numbers packed into less content spells trouble.

To put the numbers into perspective, according to the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these are the average daily values adults should be eating to maintain a healthy 2,000 calorie per day diet.

  • Total Fat: 65 grams
  • Protein: 50 grams
  • Carbohydrate: 300 grams
  • Sodium: 2,400 milligrams
  • Cholesterol: 300 grams

Let’s talk ingredients. Each and every component – cheese, sausage, and bread – is full of processed ingredients, preservatives, and artificial coloring. The bread alone has nearly 30 different ingredients.

In other words, what you get in return for the nutritional value is a tiny, easy to eat-on-the-go bite packed with nearly half the fat you should be eating for the entire day.

The calories suck up one-fifth your entire day’s allowance, and the salt…nearly one third what you should be ingesting in a 24-hour period and you haven’t even had lunch, dinner or a snack!

While no one accused McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin of being particularly healthy, it’s a morning treat that should be consumed in moderation.

That could be changing. In 2014, McDonald’s laid out goals focused on nutrition and sustainable business practices.

By 2020, the company endeavors to serve 100% more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy or whole grains.

The company is also in the process of approving the final principles and criteria for sustainable beef and other items. This includes sourcing beef, fish, coffee, etc. from growers who adhere to global environmental protection guidelines.

Chick-fil-A’s Breakfast Sandwich – Eat Mor Chikin

In the southeast, Chick-fil-A (pronounced chick-fill-eh) has been a fast food staple famous for its slogan “Eat mor chikin” (as would have been spelled by their cow mascot that obviously didn’t finish second grade).

The chain is known for its chicken sandwiches, meaning they do not have burgers on the menu.

However, to compete in the breakfast landscape, Chick-fil-a began introducing breakfast in 1986 with its now famous chicken biscuit that includes breaded chicken and a buttery biscuit.

But, in recent years, they’ve expanded their breakfast offerings while betraying their famous cow, by including biscuit and muffin sausage sandwiches.

Anyone who has dined at Chick-fil-a knows they go out of their way to be polite, friendly, efficient and accommodating. No matter if it’s the drive-thru or you’re standing in line, the person on the other side of the counter makes sure you know your business is appreciated.

The chain is most known for its chicken sandwiches – grilled and fried. But, their breakfast selection gives just about any other fast food chain a run for their money with at least ten items to select from.

Of course, their menu wouldn’t be complete without a handful of breakfast sandwiches.

Among the chicken offerings, they have a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich. The bread can be substituted three ways – muffin, biscuit or bagel.

Chick-fil-A Bag

Their muffin sandwich most resembled McDonald’s, however, upon receiving my bag from the drive-thru cashier, it was pretty heavy.

Granted this one came with an egg, but the sausage and muffin were far larger compared to its aforementioned competitor, and the cheese was oozing.

Chick-fil-A Breakfast Sandwich

Wrapped in a parchment lined foil wrapper, this was not the easiest sandwich to eat on the run, although it was quite satisfying and filling. Because it was served on a multi-grain English muffin, it seemed healthier. ‘Seemed’ being the operative word. 

While the sandwich was more substantial, so was the price, but not by much. Before tax, the sandwich cost $2.79. 

Here’s a quick look at the nutrition facts of Chick-fil-A Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Muffin:

  • 490 Calories
  • 30 Grams Fat
  • 20 Grams Protein
  • 32 Total Carbs
  • 990 mg Sodium
  • 200 mg Cholesterol

Keep in mind, this sandwich has egg in it. However, the real disparity lies in the sodium and cholesterol levels compared to McDonald’s. 

The sodium was surprisingly high as it didn’t taste as salty as McDonald’s. The cholesterol, despite there being an egg present, had less than McDonalds Sausage McMuffin by 100 milligrams.

As for the ingredients, they are all as processed and artificial as McDonald’s. The egg is surprisingly containing food coloring.

Despite the additives, Chick-fil-a is quite proud of their commitment to sustainability in the marketplace.

Focusing on their biggest seller for a moment – chicken – they source their poultry from growers who do not use added fillers or hormones and only use who breast meat, meaning nothing is pre-formed.

By the end of 2019, the company says they will only serve chicken without antibiotics.

They are eventually going to remove all high-fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes and colors from dressings and sauces, as well as trans fats, and reduce sodium by up to 50% on some menu items.

But, until they make those changes across the board, their breakfast sandwich is a heavy, fatty and salty way to start your day.

Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Breakfast Sandwich – Eat Like You Mean It

Depending on what side if the country you live on, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. has been a well-established burger fast-food chain since 1960.

They are best known for having the charbroiled burger as opposed to McDonald’s griddle-cooked patties.

They, like so many other chains, also serve a pretty wide variety of breakfast menu items, including a sausage, egg and breakfast biscuit for $3.09. So far, the most expensive of the three aforementioned restaurants.

The purchase was both a banal and innocuous experience. Nothing stood out about the service nor the presentation.

Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Bag

Wrapped in a simple wax paper, I unsheathed by morning’s meal to discover quite an oily sandwich. The wrapper was shiny with a coating of grease as was the biscuit.

Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Breakfast Sandwich

An ample sandwich, it seemed to compare to the previous two sandwiches as it was noticeably salty, but with the gooey-ness of Chick-fil-a’s offering.

Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Breakfast Sandwich

The sandwich was flavorful to the point that the sausage was well-seasoned, and the cheese glued the biscuit egg and sausage together.

The biscuits are also trademarked “Made-From-Scratch.” They seemed pretty fresh, but the oiliness was difficult to get past without copious amounts of coffee to rinse off the taste buds.

Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Breakfast Sandwich

Mechanically, the sandwich was easy to eat, but because of the oiliness, I made sure to have lots of napkins on hand so as not to get my clothes dirty.

This made the experience considerably more complicated. My steering wheel still got completely covered in grease despite my efforts. And, a greasy steering wheel is not the safest thing on the road.

Here are some quick Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr) Breakfast Sandwich nutrition facts:

  • 610 Calories
  • 41 Grams Fat
  • 20 Grams Protein
  • 39 Total Carbs
  • 1460 mg Sodium
  • 235 mg Cholesterol

These numbers give serious pause. What sticks out like a sore thumb, is the sodium, and it tasted every bit of it.

The fat and calorie content are astounding. Nearly a third of the calories one should be eating per day, in a single meal. The fat content is astronomical at nearly an entire day’s worth packed into a single sandwich. 

As for sustainability, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. has taken steps to introduce meat that comes from grass fed cows, and that does not contain hormones, antibiotics or steroids.

But, despite these efforts, you’re still consuming a lot of chemicals in what should be a straight-forward, simple meal.

Hardee’s sandwich was easy to eat mechanically speaking, but my conscious can’t allow it.

Dunkin Donuts’ Breakfast Sandwich – America Runs on Dunkin

And if you’re on the run, here is another chain that can oblige your breakfast sandwich hankerings.

After paying $3.09 at Hardee’s, this sandwich was the most expensive at $3.99 a pop. The sandwich was split down the middle on some of the naughty stuff its predecessors contained. 

Here are the Dunkin Donuts’ Breakfast Sandwich nutritional facts:

  • 530 Calories
  • 34 Grams Fat
  • 18 Grams Protein
  • 38 Total Carbs
  • 1230 mg Sodium
  • 180 mg Cholesterol

While there were fewer calories and grams of fat, the sodium was still extremely high.

Dunkin Donuts Breakfast Sandwich

Its presentation was similar to Hardee’s as the biscuit was oily, creating a greasy wrapper and oil slick on the steering wheel.

Dunkin Donuts Breakfast Sandwich

What was funny about its appearance was the size of the biscuit compared to the egg inside, which seemed to overlap the entire circumference of the bread. This made it somewhat of a challenge to eat with one hand.

Dunkin Donuts Breakfast Sandwich

The imbalance in the stacking of the ingredients made it hard to consume. The sandwich, overall, was a bit bland. Not a whole lot of flavor from any of the components other than the overwhelming saltiness.

If there is one feel good element to an otherwise lackluster breakfast, Dunkin says they recognize what they do impacts the environment.

Of most concern to the Dunkin’ Brands corporation is how it sources cocoa, coffee, dairy and palm oil.Particularly important ingredients for their donut menu.

The company works closely with the World Wildlife Fund and the Humane Society of the United States to establish animal welfare goals as well as the Climate Corps to find opportunities for better energy management at the facility and restaurant levels.

That said, better management of unhealthy ingredients could make the experience more conscionable. 

Waffle House’s Breakfast Sandwich

The Waffle House is one of those things you see on nearly every street corner in the south. With 2100 locations in 25 states, it’s an eatery that has been a staple since 1955.

They’re hard to miss with their bright yellow letters calling out to you to enjoy breakfast morning, noon or night.

And, don’t be deceived by the name, they offer a wide variety of southern breakfast delicacies from grits and biscuits to, you guessed it, breakfast sandwiches.

Depending on the location, it’s an occasion. Meaning, they don’t all have a drive-thru. You might actually have to get out of your vehicle the old fashioned way and walk inside, even if you’re taking your meal with you.

If you consider spending a few calories to park, walk and get back into your car, this might be considered inconvenient.

While Waffle House has a southern kitsch to it, you might want to stick to what it’s known for - waffles.

The Bacon, Egg and Cheese biscuit wasn’t small, overly salty or oily. It was a bit bland and dry. It was a polar opposite to the prior biscuit sandwiches that glistened with grease. At $3.75, it still offered a filling breakfast meal.

The nutritional facts of Waffle House’s Breakfast Sandwich:

  • 473 Calories
  • 23 Grams Fat
  • 13 Grams Protein
  • 46 Total Carbs
  • 942 mg Sodium
  • 249 mg Cholesterol

What should be noted is the fresh preparation of eggs in the sandwich. The first of the bunch. No fancy engineered gimmicks to make the sandwich look more appetizing.

Waffle House’s Breakfast Sandwich

Just a scrambled egg and other normally stacked accoutrements. But, because of its dryness, it was a little difficult to eat in the car as it crumbled easily with each and every bite creating quite a mess in my lap.

Waffle House’s Breakfast Sandwich

What sticks out with the Waffle House, which comes off old-fashioned – in a good way – is its commitment to the community.

It’s not a chain anywhere comparable to McDonald’s more than 68,000 locations whose environment footprint can be seen more obviously.

The Waffle House’s sustainability is focused on environmental sustainability when it comes to its locations in the form of “Project Green House.”

But, it’s the company’s philanthropy that is more of a focal point with its Waffle House Foundation.

The foundation raises and donates money to various health and human service organizations, youth and educational programs, the disadvantaged and other civic causes.

Starbucks’ Breakfast Sandwich

We know they have a reputation for serving tasty coffee, but even the world’s largest coffee chain felt it needed to compete in the hot breakfast arena.

With 20,000 stores worldwide, they’re still competing with McDonald’s McCafe brand (1300 locations), Costa Coffee (1700 locations), Tim Hortons (4300 locations) and Dunkin Donuts (10,000 locations).

However, at $1.85 for a tall (small) cup of coffee, Starbucks is quite reasonable when it comes to its breakfast sandwiches.

Their Sausage and Cheddar Breakfast sandwich was a tasty $3.45. Putting it right in the middle of all its competitors, while offering a bit of a heightened version of the sandwich by way of its cheese.

Rather than the American fair, the cheddar gave the sandwich a good flavor without the added chemicals. More on that in a moment. How does the sandwich stack up health-wise? Take a look below.

Starbucks’ Sausage and Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich nutritional facts:

  • 500 Calories
  • 28 Grams Fat
  • 15 Grams Protein
  • 41 Total Carbs
  • 920 mg Sodium
  • 165 mg Cholesterol

Based on these numbers provided by Starbucks, this sandwich is still very high in calories and fat. What also suffers here, are the ingredients within each component.

From the English muffin to the eggs, there are plenty of non-essential additives in what appears as an otherwise homemade meal. They include the same preservatives as you’d find in the other fast food chains.

Like the Waffle House, with so few drive-thrus, I had to park my car, get in line and wait for my sandwich order to be heated upon request. Not the fastest service.

Once I took my sandwich wrapped in the signature brown, recycled paper bag, it was piping hot, quite tasty and easy to devour on the go.

As said before, the cheese set this sandwich apart and its sodium level was far more palatable.

While Starbucks prides itself on minimizing its environmental impact i.e. responsible and sustainable coffee cultivation, recycled paper use, etc., where it sources its eggs was brought into the limelight.

Two years ago, the animal rights group, The Humane League, gathered over 100,000 signatures on a change.org petition asking Starbucks to switch to cage-free eggs.

Since then, Starbucks announced a major revamp of its animal welfare policy and their goal to use 100% cage-free eggs in company-operated stores by 2020.

Not only that but Starbucks announced they are moving toward pork products that come from farms that use gestation crates and poultry that is slaughtered in humane ways.

The company will also push its suppliers to abandon artificial growth hormones, and other animal-raising techniques such as dehorning, tail docking, and castration.

Of course, until those changes are made, there is no telling what or if that will affect pricing.

So Many Choices, What’s The Alternative? A Homemade Breakfast Sandwich

Today, the breakfast battleground comprises something for almost everyone. After examining some of the most popular destinations for a breakfast sandwich, it’s clear you get what you pay for.

We’ve sampled some sandwiches that were more substantial than others, however, the long list of preservatives, sodium, calories and fat were more than ample and placed all the sandwiches in a similar category.

Whether it’s fast and cheap or healthy (er) and moderately priced, there’s no reason to go hungry as you start your day.

But, if you want something as natural as possible it’s best to set the alarm 30 minutes earlier and get cracking on a breakfast sandwich made at home.

Homemade egg, cheese, and bacon muffin sandwich nutritional facts:

  • 600 Calories
  • 22 Grams Fat
  • 21 Grams Protein
  • 26 Total Carbs
  • 257 mg Sodium
  • 186 mg Cholesterol

It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper at an average cost of 6 cents for an egg, 19 cents for an English muffin, 23 cents for a slice of bacon and 16 cents for a slice of cheese. Your grand total is .64 cents and, you don’t even have to change out of your pajamas.

Read Next: From Free-Range to Organic, Are Health-Inspired Buzzwords All Fluff or Worth the Extra Dollars?


Leyla Gulen

Leyla Gulen is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience reporting on consumer-related issues for both print and broadcast.


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