Fast Food Burgers Go Big: 1/3 Pounders, 900 Calories, $4 and Up

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Where’s the beef? If you have to ask, you haven’t been to a fast food establishment recently.

You might figure that, in a recession, fast-food restaurants would try to outdo each other in terms of dropping prices lower and lower. Dollar menus might expand, or perhaps transform and evolve into quarter menus. Instead, a war has erupted on the high end of the fast food market—a battle for “gourmet” burger supremacy.

McDonald’s, which has experienced excellent sales during the recession, is going head-to-head (to-head, I suppose) with Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, all of which now offer mammoth Angus burgers priced at around $4. The latter two, which are owned by the same company, even say they’ll refund a customer’s money if he or she prefers McD’s Angus burger to theirs.

Burger King, Denny’s, Jack in the Box, and Wendy’s are all either in the fray, with premium burgers of their own—sirloin burgers, steakhouse burgers, and so on—or they will be soon, per USA Today.

While these chains are obviously competing with each other, what they’re really doing is trying to steal customers who might otherwise be chowing down on $8 or $10 burgers at a T.G.I. Friday’s or a local pub. By comparison, a $4 McDonald’s burger is cheap—an affordable splurge, a way to save money at a time when everyone wants to save money. You’re saving even more at a fast food joint because you don’t have to tip any waiters or feel pressured into ordering appetizers and another round of drinks. To attract customers away from more traditional waiter-service dining, fast food chains are pumping up their primo fare with a certain amount of swagger. “It’s good to be at the top of the food chain,” a McDonald’s billboard boasts.

Whether fast food burgers taste good is debatable. Whether they’re good for you is not. Most have 800 or 900 calories and over 2,000 mg of sodium; the federal government advises no more than 2,400 mg of sodium in an entire day.

The next logical question: Should we tax these burgers? They seem worse for people’s health than soda, which a lot of folks want to tax.