We ate fast-food breakfasts at some of the biggest national chains, to see what healthy options exist. Pictured: A sampling of fast-food breakfast items.
Photo: Sam Kaplan

One piece of dietary wisdom that has stood the test of time: Breakfast is the most important meal of your day.

“Research shows that people who eat breakfast tend to have a healthier body mass index (the relationship between your height and weight) and lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes than people who skip it,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Eating a morning meal is also linked with improved cognitive function.

More on Healthy Eating

But home-cooked breakfasts are increasingly a thing of the past—and even cold-cereal sales are getting soggy.

“As people are pressed for time, they want faster ways to get their breakfast fix,” says Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at market research firm Mintel.

According to market research firm NPD Group, the number of Americans eating breakfast outside the home was up 5 percent in 2016 over 2015, continuing a steady upward trend. NPD estimates that we now eat roughly one-third of our breakfasts at fast-food and coffee chains.

Are we sacrificing healthfulness for speed and convenience? Potentially. “It can be tricky to find a breakfast item that’s reasonable in calories, fat, sodium, and sugars while high in valuable nutrients, especially fiber—and that also tastes good,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports nutritionist. That’s why she and the rest of CR’s food testing team scrutinized offerings at six popular chains to help you make smart choices.

Happily, we found some comparatively healthy and tasty options.

What’s on the Menu?

We looked at six chains—Au Bon Pain, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jamba Juice, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, and Starbucks—that Antonella Pomilla, senior market analyst at CR, says “represent examples of national fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, smoothie chains, and coffee shops you’re likely to find in strip malls or at an airport.” From there, our dietitians scanned the calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugars, and fiber content. “We then fully tested only items that had some baseline possibility of being nutritious,” Keating says. This left 48 options to try—only a fraction of the total items available.

To be recommended, an item had to receive at least a Very Good rating for nutrition and taste. Overall, Panera Bread fared best, with five recommended items. Starbucks landed four recommendations, and Au Bon Pain and Jamba Juice had three each. Finding a healthy option was more difficult at Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s. Both chains scored high marks for taste, but none of their menu items met our nutritional criteria for a recommendation.

The offerings break out into four categories:

Egg-and-Cheese Sandwiches

The No. 1 restaurant breakfast item in America, according to Mintel, is a combination of eggs, cheese, and some kind of meat on a bagel, croissant, wrap, or other type of bread. These are tasty, filling, and easy to transport, but they’re also often loaded with fat and sodium.

Take, for instance, McDonald’s sausage biscuit with egg (which we eliminated as an option in our menu review), with 530 calories, 1,140 mg of sodium, and 34 grams of fat. “We don’t think anyone should get half their day’s sodium in one meal,” Keating says, because the odds are good that you’ll end up eating far more sodium than the recommended daily limit, which is 2,300 mg.

The items that fared best in this category tended to use whole-grain breads, egg whites, and leaner proteins (such as turkey bacon) or veggies. Top-rated among all the sandwiches CR tested was Panera Bread’s avocado, scrambled egg white, and spinach on a flat sprouted-grain bagel, which got an Excellent rating for taste and a Very Good rating for nutrition.

Make it healthier: “Flat bagels are a good way to cut down on carb calories,” Keating says. Also, skipping cheese on your sandwich can significantly reduce fat and sodium. Going meatless at least some of the time is also a good idea. “Sandwiches with veggies like spinach and tomato were healthier than anything with ham, bacon, or sausage,” Keating says.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is a great source of antioxidants and dietary fiber—especially soluble fiber, which has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels. But our testers found that the nutritional quality of this category varied widely from chain to chain.

For instance, the oatmeal at McDonald’s is premixed with brown sugar, fresh apples, and dried fruit, and has a whopping 33 grams of sugars (though there is an off-menu unsweetened option). Compare this with the strawberry and pecan oatmeal at Panera Bread, which has just 16 grams of sugar.

Starting with unsweetened oatmeal and adding your own toppings and sweeteners gives you more control. But be mindful of what you pick. “Chocolate chips, sweetened coconut, and granola can significantly up the calorie and sugars count,” Keating says. “And no one type of sweetener is any healthier than another. Brown sugar, maple syrup, and honey all supply about the same amount of added sugars, teaspoon for teaspoon.”

Make it healthier: Order unsweetened oatmeal if available, then ask for your sweeteners on the side, so you control the amounts. When it comes to toppings, stick with fruits and nuts.

Smoothies and Energy Bowls

Jamba Juice bills itself as a “healthful, ­active-lifestyle brand.” But our testers found that the high sugars in many of its smoothies and bowls belied those healthy claims. Similar offerings at other chains fared poorly, too, for the same reasons. Only one—Jamba Juice’s fruit and Greek yogurt energy bowl—was recommended. It had less sugars than other bowls and smoothies, and it got a boost for containing an abundance of fresh fruit.

Make it healthier: If it’s an option, get sweeteners on the side. Also, look for items that contain whole fruit—which supply a hit of dietary fiber and sweetness without added sugars.

Breakfast Boxes

Au Bon Pain and Starbucks offer boxes filled with cheeses, nut butters, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit. Au Bon Pain’s healthy salmon box ­received only a Fair rating for taste, while its fruit-and-cheese option had too much fat to make our list. The one recommended box, Starbucks’ eggs-and-cheese protein box, has more fat than most options in our ratings—but much of it is unsaturated fat from the peanut butter.


Breakfast Bombs: These May Blow Your Nutrition Budget in One Sitting

McDonald’s
The Big Breakfast with Hotcakes weighs in at 1,350 calories, 65 grams of fat, and 2,100 mg of sodium—close to the daily recommended maximum.

Dunkin’ Donuts
At 700 calories and 1,120 mg of sodium—49 percent of the max amount you should have in a day, steer clear of the sausage, egg, and cheese on a (high-fat) croissant.

Au Bon Pain
Two eggs, sausage, and cheddar on an Asiago bagel clocks in at 660 calories, 1,140 mg of sodium, and 16 grams of saturated fat—80 percent of the max most people should get in a day.

Panera Bread
A spinach and artichoke soufflé may sound healthy, but it has 33 grams of fat (19 saturated) and 890 mg of sodium.

Jamba Juice
A large banana berry classic smoothie has a whopping 106 grams of natural and added sugars.

Starbucks
The chicken, sausage, and bacon biscuit has 1,160 mg of sodium.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.