The burger is a popular fixture on many a casual dining menu, but also a dish open to varying interpretations. In some cases, a burger can form part of a relatively healthy, wholesome and nutritious meal. In others, it can make for a much more calorific offering, high in salt and saturated fat.

We thought it might be interesting to compare the nutritional value of some of those on offer in several leading UK restaurant chains, to see just how many calories a burger dish can pack, and to see what makes a burger more or less healthy.

To summarise:

  • Yates’s dish the Challenger Burger had the highest calorie, saturated fat and salt content of the 12 chains we assessed.
  • The dish, which includes a double portion of chips and 10 onion rings, contains 3,793 calories (nearly double the daily reference intake for women, and one and a half times the daily reference intake for men), 81.5 grams of saturated fat (over four times the RI for an adult) and 14 grams of salt (two and a half times the upper RI).
  • Wetherspoons dish the Empire State Burger (fries included) placed them in second for calorie content (1,978), and their Ultimate Burger dish (fries included) placed them in second for and salt content (9.8g).
  • The Mighty from GBK pushed them into second place on our list for highest saturated fat content (35.9g).
  • Unsurprisingly, the plain Hamburgers from Burger King and MacDonald’s, at 250 calories each, were the least calorific of those we considered.

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Further tables, detailing those burger dishes we found that were highest in salt and saturated fat content, along with some healthier options, can be found below.

Burger boom

Recently, the burger has become one of the UK’s most popular foods. In decades gone by, the burger market in Britain was largely dominated by fast food chains; but as American diner-style restaurants have become more fashionable, several restaurant chains have developed their own unique offerings.

Inevitably this has led some to make their burger options more elaborate, to help them stand out from the competition. This often means bigger patties and more toppings, which can add up and increase the calorie, salt and saturated fat content of a burger significantly.

As with most comfort food, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the odd burger as a treat, or on a special occasion. But it’s a good idea not to make particularly calorific, saturated or salty foods too regular a habit, as this can make it harder to maintain a healthy diet.

We thought it might be interesting to take a look at the nutritional value of some of these offerings, and compare burger options from popular UK chains; and in doing so, determine what makes a healthier (and an unhealthier) burger dish.

On the subject, Clinical Lead Dr Daniel Atkinson had the following to say:

'Burgers come in all shapes and sizes, and some are obviously bigger and more loaded with toppings than others. While enjoying a burger every now and again as an occasional treat isn't likely to have much of an impact on your diet and health overall, it's important to remember that making a regular habit of eating them - particularly the saltier and more calorific ones on offer - can push you towards, and sometimes over, your nutritional reference intakes.'

'So, as with most comfort foods, it's best to enjoy them in moderation. Doing so will help you to maintain a healthy and balanced diet; but also help to make the treat all the more special on the occasions you do have it.'

What did we look at?

We analysed burgers from the menus of 12 recognisable UK chains. From each menu, we took the burgers (or burger dishes, where the nutritional value stated on the menu was for this and not the burger on it it’s own) with the highest and lowest calorie, salt and saturated fat content.

Surprisingly, many prominent high street restaurant chains still did not have their nutritional information available online at time of writing. So the chains we have included in our assessment deserve praise for making this information readily available.

As we’ve written previously, providing nutritional information helps consumers to make informed choices about the food they’re eating. Not everyone may have the inclination to hold the evening up by asking for nutritional information when ordering in the restaurant; so having nutritional information available online enables diners to research the menu at their leisure, before they go, and helps to give them an idea of which menu items are healthier than others.

Taking the above into consideration, our list of burgers below cannot be a definitive list of those available from UK chains; we were limited to restaurants whose data was available online at time of writing.

What did we include and exclude?

The information we have included is what is stated as the nutritional value of the burger, or burger dish, on the nutritional information made available online by each outlet.

We included:

  • burger options available from the menu ‘as they come’, without adding or subtracting any toppings;
  • burgers on the adult menu, including speciality burgers and ‘small’ burgers.

We excluded:

  • any burgers advertised as ‘junior’ or ‘kids’ size, listed only on the children’s menu;
  • bunless options, as nutritional information for the burger without the bun was not available for each chain.

Some chains listed itemised nutritional information for burgers on their own and for accompanying side dishes separately. Others only provided information for the 'complete dish', inclusive of the burger and side dishes such as fries and onion rings. In the interests of consistency, where ‘burger only’ nutrition information was available, we have added a medium (or regular) portion of fries to the meal, in order to determine a value for the equivalent of a 'complete dish'. In the tables, we have stated in parentheses the name of the fries option we included.

We should note at this point that burger chain Five Guys do have their nutritional information available online. However, we decided not to include them in our analysis because their menu works on a bespoke, ‘create your own’ basis. At Five Guys the customer is prompted to choose their own toppings from a selection at no extra cost; and as such we decided that an analysis of their menu wouldn’t be comparable to what we had done for other chains, where patrons choose an already ‘complete’ burger with pre-determined toppings from a menu.

Which chain had the most calorific burger?

  • The Challenge Burger from Yates’s was the burger with the highest number of calories of the chains we analysed. The entire dish, which includes a double-sized portion of chips and onion rings, packs 3,793 calories.
  • JD Wetherspoons most calorific option, the Empire State Burger, pushed them into second place at 1,978 calories. However, as explained on the table, there was some discrepancy between the stated calorie totals for this item on the nutritional information, and the point of sale menu.
  • The nutritional information for Wetherspoons also had two entries for the Ultimate Burger: one stating 1,753 calories and the other 2,000 calories. We made a decision to stick with the Empire State Burger as the most calorific in our analysis, as the point of sale menu listed this as the more calorific than the Ultimate Burger.

We contacted Wetherspoons asking them to confirm which of the above figures was accurate. At time of publishing, we hasn’t received a response.

The most calorific burger option on the menu at McDonald’s was the Big Tasty with Bacon, at 850 calories. KFC’s Daddy Burger was their highest, at 641 calories. A medium fries added to each pushed the complete dish totals for these burgers up to 1,187 and 951 calories respectively. Leon’s highest calorie option, the LEON Plant Burger, was just 464 calories. A side of fries takes the meal total to 766 calories.

The daily calorie reference intakes for women and men are 2,000 and 2,500 respectively, which in both cases is comfortably exceeded by Yates’s Challenge Burger; whereas the Empire State Burger from Wetherspoons (depending on which figure you take) very nearly reaches the RI for women, and isn’t too far away from reaching the RI for men.

In fairness, the name ‘Challenger Burger’ suggests that its a novelty dish which is difficult to complete; however the second most calorific burger dish on the Yates’s menu, The Mighty Stack at 1,700 kcal, was still no slouch.

PHE recently published their 400-600-600 guidance in relation to calorie intake. This recommends sticking to around 400 calories for breakfast, and 600 calories each for lunch and dinner, in order to keep portion sizes to healthy, sensible levels.

This then helps to demonstrate why more calorific burgers from restaurants should be considered as only an occasional treat, as opposed to a regular fixture in someone’s diet.

As we all know, continually consuming more calories than you expend through physical activity can lead to weight gain, and in turn diet-related illnesses. And obviously, the more regularly someone exceeds their daily RI of calories, the less likely they are to be able to burn this energy off, and the more at risk they are of becoming overweight.

As in previous analyses of dishes on chain restaurant menus, we noticed a disparity between ‘fast food’ outlets, and full service ‘sit-down’ restaurants and pubs. The most calorific offerings at fast food chains such as McDonald’s were comparatively modest next to those offered at the ‘pub-grub’ outlets we looked at.

It’s likely that portion-sizing plays a significant role in this. Fast food outlets, concentrating on offering food at cheaper prices, are more likely to offer their dishes in smaller quantities; whereas the sense of occasion around a sit-down meal in a pub or restaurant lends itself to more expensive dishes, and larger portion sizes.

Which chain had the burger highest in saturated fat?

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  • Again, Yates’s Challenge Burger dish had the highest saturated fat content of the burgers we looked at, with 81.5 grams (four times the RI for an adult).
  • GBK placed second, with The Mighty burger containing 35.9 grams.

The burgers with the highest amount of saturated fat on the menu at Leon were the Chargrilled Chicken Burger and Korean Burger, with a modest 3 grams a piece.

The daily reference intake of saturated fat for an adult is 20 grams. Again, regularly exceeding this can lead to diet-related illness. Consuming too much saturated fat raises the blood level of cholesterol (specifically LDL or low density lipoproteins), and over time this can clog up the arteries and increase the risk of heart and circulation problems.

Red meat such as beef, and fatty cuts of pork such as bacon, tend to be higher in saturated fat. Chicken has a lower saturate content; which explains why the most saturated offerings from KFC and Leon (who offer chicken burgers instead of beef) are placed lower down.

The preparation method used in cooking toppings for the burger also makes a difference. Deep-frying food in oil increases its saturated fat content. Bacon and onion rings are common burger toppings which are often deep-fried.

Grilled dishes, as illustrated by the table above and at the bottom of the page, tend to be lower in saturated fat. So it can be helpful to keep this in mind when choosing from the menu if you’re looking to keep your saturated fat intake down.

Which chain had the saltiest burger?

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  • Unsurprisingly due to its volume, Yates’s Challenger Burger dish had the most salt, with 14 grams. The RI for an adult is 2-6 grams.
  • Wetherspoons Ultimate Burger dish placed second, with 9.8 grams.

At the other end of the table, the LEON Plant Burger contains 1.4 grams.

We’ve written several times before that eating too much salt is a major contributor to high blood pressure, which can eventually lead to heart problems.

It’s important then to stay within the RI of 2-6 grams as much as possible. However, this isn’t always easy when eating out (and particularly not when eating a burger and fries, which tend to be higher in salt anyway).

More restaurants are now becoming mindful of the effects of too much salt in our diet, and offering low salt alternatives. Diners can further reduce their intake when enjoying a meal out by speaking to their server, and asking for no salt to be added to their food during cooking where possible. (For example, if the restaurant can prepare fries without adding any salt, this can obviously lower the salt content of the meal.)

It’s useful to keep in mind that toppings such as bacon tend to have a higher salt content, and elements which are deep-fried, such as onion rings or hash browns, may have salt added to the bread mixture or batter used to coat them.

Which burgers were lowest in calories, salt and saturated fat?

In the interests of balance, we also compiled the burgers from each menu with the lowest calorie, salt and saturated fat content. Again, because some nutritional information was not itemised, we added a standard portion of chips or fries to each in order to make the calorie totals for a complete dish consistent across the board; but healthier side dish options are available.

As the data demonstrates, more modest choices are on offer, and it is possible to enjoy a burger out and stay within recommended RIs.

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