McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal
Bowing to pressure from health advocates and parents, McDonald'sis putting the Happy Meal on a diet.
The company announced Tuesday that it would more than halve the amount of French fries and add fruit to its popular children’s meal in an effort to reduce the overall calorie count by 20 percent.
But McDonald’s appeasement only went so far. A toy will still come with each Happy Meal despite criticism that the trinkets, often with tie-ins to movies like "Toy Story," foster a powerful connection between children and the often calorie-laden meals.
While Happy Meals account for less than 10 percent of all McDonald’s sales, the signature box and its contents — first introduced in 1979 — have become a favorite target in recent years. Lawmakers and consumers have rallied around breaking that childhood link between toys and fast food, with the efforts increasing as Michelle Obama and national public health officials point to the estimated 17 percent rate of obesity among the nation’s youths.
San Francisco, for example, has banned the inclusion of toys in children’s meals unless certain nutritional requirements are met. A New York City councilman is proposing a similar law.
Other restaurant chains have gone further than McDonald’s in acceding to calls for improving the fare on children’s menus and eliminating marketing appeals. In June, Jack in the Box announced the end of toys in its children’s meals, and this month, Burger King, IHOP and more than a dozen other restaurant chains backed an effort led by the National Restaurant Association to serve and promote healthier options for youngsters.
"McDonald’s is not giving the whole loaf, but it is giving a half or two thirds of a loaf," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is representing a woman in California who is suing McDonald’s for including toys in its Happy Meals. "This is an important step in the right direction."
McDonald’s made it clear that it was changing the composition of Happy Meals in response to parental and consumer pressure. It also pledged to reduce the sodium content in all of its foods by 15 percent, with the exceptions of soda and desserts. It set a deadline of 2015 for limiting salt, and said it would spend the rest of this decade cutting back on sugars, saturated fats and calories and making adjustments to portion sizes.
The new Happy Meals will be introduced in September and rolled out across the company’s 14,000 restaurants by April 2012. They will all include apple slices, but in a smaller amount of three to five slices than the current eight to 10 offered as an alternative. (The Apple Dippers also will be renamed after the company phases out the caramel dipping sauce, according to Tuesday’s announcement.)
"It’s a trade-off between everybody getting a small portion and 10 percent of kids getting a larger portion, which is better than nothing and maybe will accustom kids to eating fresh fruits and vegetables when they go out to eat," Mr. Jacobson said.
Parents will have the option of requesting more fruit or, possibly at a later date, vegetables instead of fries. McDonald’s will also offer a fat-free chocolate milk option, along with the option of low-fat milk or the traditional soda. The price is not expected to change.
Today’s Happy Meal with Chicken Nuggets has 520 calories and 26 grams of fat, and the reconstituted version, with 1 percent milk, will total 410 calories and 19 grams of fat, according to the company.
The company said it had experimented with eliminating French fries altogether from the boxes, but that generated a lot of customer complaints. Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the company, said that McDonald’s tests also found that parents wanted soda among the drinks available, too. "That’s what we’ve really felt all along, that ultimately, it’s a parent decision to make about their child’s well-being," she said.
McDonald’s has long offered parents the option of asking for fruit rather than fries, although a study by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that only 11 percent took advantage of that option.
While some critics of fast-food and public health officials praised the moves (Mrs. Obama called them "positive steps"), others complained that McDonald’s did not go far enough. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and an outspoken critic of the food industry, called the changes a "sham," in part because McDonald’s is not doing more to limit soda with the Happy Meal.
"They’re going to get huge publicity for this — an ounce less of French fries," Dr. Nestle said. "I’m not impressed."
In fact, when apples are added to the Happy Meal with a soda, the amount of sugar in the new package increases.
As part of an effort to provide better access to nutritional information about its foods, the company has developed its first mobile application for the public. McDonald’s executives also plan to tour the country to hear directly from consumers about their concerns.
"We are doing what we can," Ms. Proud said. "We have to evolve with the times, and the times require us and our customers are asking us to offer more options."
Ms. Proud said that even with the changes, the Happy Meal would not meet San Francisco’s requirements, which demand both a fruit and vegetable serving, among other things, before a company can include a toy with a child’s meal.
Public health experts expect the company to mount a legal challenge to that ordinance before it goes into effect in December, but Ms. Proud said McDonald’s was still evaluating its options.
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