McDonald’s vs Starbucks: What’s Healthier?

Starbucks and McDonald’s: Reality vs. Perception

Two of the world’s biggest retail food and drink companies go head to head in literally hundreds of major markets. While most consumers correctly perceive that Starbucks tends to charge more for similar items that can be purchased at McDonald’s, there is a collective social fog when it comes to nutrition and quality comparisons between the two companies.

High Quality or Low Prices: Choose One

Starbucks has spent untold millions on advertising in order to create its “quality” image, while McDonald’s has spent decades perfecting the art of the quick meal. When consumer preferences began to change about 10 years ago, and quality began to replace “value” as the holy grail of the fast-food crowd, Starbucks became the new star of the retail beverage segment.

McDonald’s has had to play catch-up. It’s not easy for giant corporations with thousands of storefronts all over the world to adapt rapidly, but eventually Mickey D’s pulled it off. The former burger-and-fries behemoth now offers a complete line of coffee and tea drinks that compete directly with Starbucks. McDonald’s also began adding healthier choices to its menus, streamlined the ordering process, and kept prices well below its competitors, especially newer competitors like Starbucks and upscale sandwich shops.

Health Comparison Tells the Whole Story

Coffee Drinks Only:

While McDonald’s 36,000 worldwide stores notch upwards of $27 billion in annual sales against Starbucks $17 billion, there has been a more subtle battle going on between the two: McDonald’s corporate team is pulling out all the stops to beat Starbucks at its own game, by offering quality coffee/tea drinks at low prices, and delivering a wide variety of healthy food choices that contain less sugar and fat than Starbucks’ fare. Have they succeeded? Here are some of the raw numbers that tell the story of McDonald’s vs. Starbucks, in terms of caffeine and sugar content, price, and overall nutrition:

  • Overall, when considering the five factors of price, caffeine content, sugar, fat, and total calories, there is no clear “winner,” because McDonald’s and Starbucks each have their strong points.
  • Both companies use what many health-conscious consumers try to avoid: high fructose corn syrup.
  • McDonald’s is the across the board winner when it comes to price. For those wanting a quick cup of something hot and tasty, but don’t want to shell out too much cash, the golden arches are the choice of the frugal.
  • Consumer preferences are hard to pin down, but it is a commonly held belief that Starbucks tends to have better hot beverages and McDonald’s excels with the iced coffees and teas.
  • Caffeine content is about the same for the overall menus of the two, and both offer low-calorie choices for hot and cold beverages. Consumers who are watching their caloric intake can opt for sugar-free syrups, low-fat milk and order drinks without whipped cream at both McDonald’s and Starbucks.
  • Because McDonald’s has done such a thorough job of beefing up its coffee offerings, they now rival Starbucks in the areas of taste (flavor) and menu options. There was a time not so long ago when Mickey D’s sold plain coffee and that was it. Nowadays, their hot and cold McCafé beverage menu is as wide ranging as Starbucks, cheaper overall, and comparable in terms of quality and taste.
  • To pick just one example as an illustration, the McDonald’s 16-ounce iced mocha with whipped cream contains 310 calories to Starbucks 330 for the same item, has just 13 grams of fat to Starbucks 19 grams, contains 30 grams less caffeine (McD 145 g vs. Starbucks 175 g), and costs about a dollar less, give or take a few cents depending what market the stores are in. The only area where McDonald’s “loses” to Starbucks on this menu item? The McDonald’s drink contains 35 grams of sugar to Starbucks’ 28 grams. But the situation is quite different when it comes to food.

Food Items:

Starbucks can’t hold a candle to McDonald’s in the solid food category. With thousands of stores worldwide, and an evolving menu of healthy and not-so-healthy old favorites, McDonald’s has perfected the art of comfort food, reasonable prices and fast service. Average wait times at McDonald’s locations hover in the 3-minute range, while Starbucks’ average waits are in the scary 10-minute range. And because the coffee chain has no in-house kitchens, their foods must be shipped in, already wrapped and not very fresh.

Some Starbucks locations now offer “breakfast” rolls and sandwiches, but they pale by comparison with McDonald’s full menu of warm, freshly cooked breakfast items. Price comparisons in the food category show McDonald’s in a very favorable light once again. As a rule of thumb, a non-fresh breakfast sandwich at Starbucks costs about twice what a freshly prepared one does at McDonald’s.

Two years ago Starbucks purchased La Boulange, a company that makes pastries, and began selling a full line of baked goods in thousands of its locations. Soon, the coffee chain will be rolling out a fuller food menu, with sandwiches, bakery items, desserts, breakfasts and salads eventually coming to most stores. Again, the fact that Starbucks has no in-store kitchens means they have to rely on already-prepared food that is neither fresh nor very healthy. Consider the following:

  • A “typical” meal at McDonalds, consisting of a Quarter Pounder (with cheese), medium fries and a Diet Coke weighs in at 900 calories, with 45 grams of fat, nearly 1,400 mg sodium and 10 grams of sugar. A comparable meal at Starbucks, consisting of a BBQ brisket sandwich, an orange-cranberry scone and a 12-ounce, low-fat latte tips the nutrition scales at 1097 calories, 40 grams of fat, 52 grams of sugar, and a whopping 1,783 mg of sodium.
  • While that “meal” is not a perfect comparison, it is illustrative of the overall McDonald’s vs. Starbucks food profile: the coffee chain tends to carry high sodium content (probably due to its pre-packaging process), much more sugar, a bit more fat, and generally more calories.
  • It doesn’t take a nutritionist to see that the McDonald’s selection is more like real food, whereas the Starbucks offerings are more processed, sugary and fat-laden. McDonald’s, as a general rule, intends to sell meals, while Starbucks is more of a coffee-and-sweet-snack specialist that is trying to break into the food segment.

The fast-food giant comes in for plenty of criticism in the media, while Starbucks is currently enjoying its status as the king of quality in the coffee and snack segment. The truth of the matter is, however, that a cup of coffee and a meal at McDonald’s is much less calorie-laden, contains less fat and sugar overall, and costs much less than comparable fare at Starbucks.

 

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  1. gale Dufresne
    6 months ago

    This was very informative information. I never go to the golden arches because I don’t do fast food, and never go to Starbucks because of cost, but have been told by my kids that Starbucks was better. I will have to tell them this information. Thanks for doing the research.

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