The truth about McDonald's breakfast

You may not have to rush to McDonald's in the morning to get breakfast anymore, but, there was a time when college kids across America schlepped themselves out of bed before 10 a.m. to nurse their hangovers with Egg McMuffins and hash browns. Chances are it was better than your dining hall food, and it was probably cheaper too, given the cost of higher education.

These days you can get Mickey D's breakfast around the clock. This is just the latest addition to their food history, spiced with innovations and controversies alike. Here are some things you didn't know about McDonald's breakfast.

It's been around for a while

Like most McDonald's innovations, selling breakfast items was the idea of a franchisee. Jim Dellegatti, inventor of the Big Mac and franchise operator, wanted to have his restaurant open during morning hours. So in 1970, he started selling coffee and other breakfast items during the four hour window when most McDonald's were closed. By 1971, he was doing 5 percent of his business during this shift.

But it was another franchisee who really put breakfast on the map for the fast food industry — Herb Peterson, who operated a McDonald's in Santa Barbara, California. He asked Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's System, Inc., to come visit his restaurant over a Christmas holiday. It was there that he planned to show Kroc a new item he had been working on: an egg sandwich served with cheese and a slice of Canadian bacon. According to company lore, Kroc liked it so much he ate two in a row, then brought the idea back to executives. This humble sandwich, which was officially launched shortly after senior management were introduced to it, became the cornerstone of the McDonald's breakfast menu. By 1976 McDonald's had a full, established breakfast menu, years before the competition got into the game.

All day breakfast caused some problems

All day breakfast was a big deal when McDonald's rolled in out in October of 2015, which was no surprise since it was their number one customer demand. Not everyone was thrilled with the roll-out, however, as there were a few hiccups. Some franchisees had to invest a lot of money making their restaurant capable of serving breakfast alongside the standard menu items. Others felt like they were rushed into service, and wanted more time to introduce the new menu. And there was concern about menu items that all day breakfast pushed off the menu, like some McWraps.

In spite of these and other issues, sales have been good, driving an increase in stock prices and company revenue. So at the end of the day, making breakfast available around the clock was, so far, the right thing to do for both franchisees and the corporation.

They're invested in the coffee game

Starbucks, easily the most ubiquitous coffee shop in the United States, wasn't always on every corner. So its fast and fierce success showed there's an insatiable thirst for coffee in the American market, and customers are willing to pay top dollar for it. In this regard, McDonald's was a bit late to the party, in spite of the fact that as of 2006, they sold one out of 10 cups of coffee purchased at restaurants, stores, and coffee shops — that's $19 billion every year.

McDonald's really upped their coffee game when they introduced the McCafe line of drinks in 2009. Featuring drip coffee, lattes, frappes, and more, these drinks rival the stalwart offerings available at Starbucks, though for a cheaper price and faster service. Additionally, they've been changing how they source their coffee beans and work with farmers; by 2020, 100 percent of the coffee they source will be sustainable.

It can be pretty unhealthy

You can't beat the convenience of getting a hot breakfast at the drive-through window on a hectic work morning. But it's prudent to do a bit of research in your downtime as your breakfast can quickly become a fat, salty calorie bomb. Take, for example, the Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit: it has 450 calories, which isn't too terrible, but it also has 24 grams of fat — that's 37 percent of your daily recommended intake. And it has a whopping 1,290 milligrams of sodium, which is over half of your recommended daily sodium intake in one sandwich. Note that this nutritional profile is pretty standard for their breakfast sandwiches; everything served on either biscuits or McGriddles shakes out with relatively similar calorie, fat, and sodium measurements.

But even that's not as bad as their aptly-named biggest breakfast offender, the Big Breakfast, which clocks in at 750 calories, 49 grams of fat, and 1,490 milligrams of sodium. And if you get it with hotcakes? That's literally 100 percent of your recommended fat intake in one sitting. Wash that down with a latte from the McCafe menu, and you've exceeded your dietary fat allotment before lunch.

But there are healthy breakfast options

Like most restaurants, you can find a range of options, from healthy to downright decadent, depending on how you order. And McDonald's is no different; for as decadent as you can get with the Big Breakfast, you can also order a few breakfast items that won't exceed your daily recommended guidelines in one sitting.

The Egg McMuffin clocks in at 300 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 730 milligrams of sodium. And while that's a bit high in fat and sodium, you do get 18 grams of protein. Still, the healthier option is the Egg White Delight McMuffin, which has 260 calories, eight grams of fat, and 730 milligrams of sodium. And it only has two grams less protein than the regular McMuffin.

Cage-free eggs are on the horizon

One of the most central ingredients on the McDonald's breakfast menu is eggs. You'll find them either fried, folded, or scrambled in many items, such as the breakfast burrito, breakfast sandwiches, and the Big Breakfast. In fact, they use so many eggs that McDonald's uses more than four percent of all eggs produced in the U.S. That's a lot of eggs!

What's surprising is that McDonald's has pledged to use only cage-free eggs in their North American restaurants by 2025, an ambitious undertaking for sure. But with more and more customers demanding that livestock be treated ethically, it's a wise move for business. Still, it's going to be a while before this is fully implemented.

That problem with their pork

Nearly all of the meat in McDonald's breakfast items is pork: the sausage, the Canadian bacon, and of course the standard bacon. In fact, the only non-pork breakfast meat is the steak in the Steak, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit, if you can get it in your area.

McDonald's found itself in some hot water back in 2011 when Smithfield, a company who supplies McDonald's with pork, were accused of lying to shareholders by the Humane Society of the United States. According to the complaint made to The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Smithfield made claims about animal welfare that were untrue, as they confined breeding sow to gestation cages — spaces so small that during their entire lifetime, they couldn't even turn around. In response, McDonald's pledged to have its U.S. pork suppliers phase out the use of these crates, though officially, this won't happen until 2022.

So even though they're making the effort to source humane pork, it's no guarantee for the time being.

Breakfast hacks are catching on

Like most fast food joints, McDonald's has a menu that can be hacked, or customized. You can ask for some basic changes, like asking for a round egg in your Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit instead of the folded egg. The round egg is fresh cracked, so allegedly you'll get a better egg on your sandwich this way. Another fun hack is subbing out the sausage in the Sausage McGriddle with chicken; dip it in maple syrup, and you have a pseudo chicken and waffles flavor — note that you'll have to do this once they start serving lunch alongside all day breakfast. The same applies for the Chicken Cordon Bleu McMuffin; order an Egg McMuffin, order a McChicken, put the McChicken patty under the egg in the McMuffin, discard the leftovers, and voila, you have a tasty brunch sandwich.

If you're a vegetarian, or simply want to avoid the Micky D's sodium bomb, you can hack yourself a "McCrepe." For this, order both the hotcakes and the yogurt parfait; pour the parfait into the hotcakes, fold them up, and boom: crepes.

They've tested breakfast happy meals

Although Happy Meals are marketed for children, plenty of adults can order them too. It's one way to guarantee portion control, for instance, and the price is right. Plus you can customize it. So wouldn't it be nice to have this in a breakfast format?

What you might not have known is that back in 2016, McDonald's did in fact have breakfast Happy Meals on their menu for a week in 73 Tulsa, Okla., area locations, as a testt. There were two main options in the breakfast Happy Meals: two McGriddle cakes, or an Egg & Cheese McMuffin sans the Canadian bacon. For side options, you could select either yogurt or apple slices, and depending on the day, hash browns or french fries. And if it's deemed to be a success and go national? It would be the first new entree in a Happy Meal in over 30 years.

Will they be on the McDonald's breakfast menu again? We'll have to wait and see, as there have been no new announcements since the original pilot test.

The options are very different abroad

If you've ever traveled outside of the United States, you've surely notice some of the variations in the McDonald's breakfast menu, depending on where you go. For example, if you're traveling in the Middle East, you're not going to find the pork on the menu at all because it's haram, or forbidden in Islam. Here's a sampling of other breakfast items you'll find on the menu abroad.

  • The Netherlands, who are known for loving their stroopwaflels, serve pancakes with Nutella and syrup on their McDonald's breakfast menu.
  • In New Zealand, you can get a Georgie Pie Bacon 'N' Egg, the breakfast version of a Georgie Pie. Read more about the history of Georgie Pie restaurants here.
  • Head over to Australia for an English Brekkie Wrap, which is eggs, bacon, and sausage wrapped in a tortilla with BBQ sauce.
  • I visited Hungary last year, where you can have a Fresh McMuffin, which is sausage and cheese served on an English muffin with lettuce, tomato, and mustard.
  • In Saudi Arabia, they serve the Halloumi Muffin, which is a halal, vegetarian breakfast sandwich with halloumi, lettuce, tomato, and olive paste.
  • Who knew Japan would have a Mega McMuffin, with double sausage, bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin.
  • In India, you can try the Veg Supreme McMuffin. It's a spinach and corn patty served on an English muffin with mayo, tomato, and onion.

So if you're traveling, there are definitely breakfast options.

All-day breakfast hit a wall

In spite of all of the good numbers and increase in stock prices that had been reported, it appears McDonald's could be hitting a wall with its all-day breakfast sales boost. In late January of 2017, McDonald's reported a drop in stock for the first time since the all-day breakfast menu debuted back in October of 2016, after a solid year and a half of positive earnings. Some analysts predicted this could be due to the novelty of the breakfast items wearing off.

But it's too soon to tell if this will be a permanent downturn — time will tell.

Breakfast is wallet-friendly

Everyone knows that McDonalds is convenient, and more importantly, it's cheap. But breakfast is the cheapest meal of the day at the home of the golden arches, whether you get it in the morning or as part of all day breakfast.

Take the Chicago market, for example, where they're headquartered. The Egg McMuffin is about $1 cheaper than some of the popular main menu sandwich choices — hash browns are cheaper than fries, too. That can add up over time, so it's no surprise that people will order it in lieu of the standard lunch side.