Thursday 12 December 2019

A happier meal with McDonald's looking to a healthier future

McDonald's is making its children's menu healthier but not all experts are loving it

Happy Meals will fall in calories, while salt will also be reduced, as cheeseburgers are ditched
Happy Meals will fall in calories, while salt will also be reduced, as cheeseburgers are ditched

Caitlin Dewey

McDonald's Happy Meal is about to get a makeover. On Thursday, the fast-food chain announced new nutrition standards for its kids' meals and a series of upcoming menu swaps designed to make options for children healthier.

By June 2018, all of its US Happy Meals will contain fewer than 600 calories - and most will contain under 650mg of salt. The chain is shrinking the size of the fries that come with kids' McChicken Nuggets and reformulating its chocolate milk to make it less sugary.

Bottled water will soon become a default Happy Meal option. Cheeseburgers will drop off entirely. It has also promised to continue promoting fresh fruit and vegetables as a side, building on the success of its baby carrots and 'Cutie' tangerines.

Taken together, the changes do not transform burgers or chicken nuggets into health foods. But McDonald's and public health experts who have reviewed the plans say they have the potential to incrementally improve the diets of millions of children.

One third of US kids eat fast food each day, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. "We think McDonald's is raising the bar," said Howell Wechsler, CEO of the non-profit Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which advised McDonald's on the menu changes. "It's a challenge to other companies in the field to get out there and do what's right for kids."

In addition to the calorie and sodium goals, the chain's new 'nutrition criteria' aim to get meals below 10pc of calories from saturated fat, and 10pc of calories from added sugar.

But a spokeswoman for McDonald's in Ireland said that the changes to the US Happy Meal menu will not impact on the Irish menu.

"We take our responsibility to families very seriously and in Ireland we have, for a long time, been committed to evolving our Happy Meal menu to keep in step with what parents want," she said.

"We have pioneered an extensive salt and sugar reduction programme and there is also an increased choice of Happy Meal combinations, including low fat Irish milk and mineral water at no extra cost. Mums and dads can swap fries for carrot sticks or a fruit bag.

"Not only can you choose these as a side whenever you buy a Happy Meal, you can also always add on a fruit bag to the meal for only 50 cent."

McDonald's hopes to have half its meals compliant by the end of 2022 in 120 countries. To make that happen, the restaurant is introducing options - such as a grilled chicken sandwich for kids, available in Italy - as well as tweaking old recipes and serving sizes. Its six-piece Chicken McNugget meal will now come with a 110-calorie serving of fries, instead of the standard, 230-calorie small order. The chain is also dropping kids' cheeseburgers, which have an extra 50 calories and 200mg of sodium over regular burgers.

In 2011, McDonald's announced plans to reduce added sugar and sodium in several Happy Meal recipes. It also added apple slices to its Happy Meals and shrunk the serving size of fries to 1.1 ounces. Two years later, the chain agreed to drop fizzy drinks as a default option in kids' meals and to more aggressively advertise fruits and vegetables as side-dish options.

"We've really focused our efforts on families and children," said Julia Braun, McDonald's director of nutrition.

By most accounts, those efforts have been successful. In a report on the restaurant's sales in 13 countries, commissioned by the Alliance last year, public policy consulting firm Keybridge found that milk, water and juice sales at McDonald's had ticked up 9 percentage points between 2013 and 2016. Between 2014 and 2016, McDonald's sold 406.2m low-fat yogurts, and 38m clementines.

Other restaurants have also overhauled their kids' menus. In Ireland, Supermac's has also launched a range of healthier options on its menu.

A 2017 report found that the percentage of top-50 chain restaurants with sugary drinks on their kids' menus fell from 93pc to 74pc over the preceding 10-year period.

Of course, some experts caution that, even with these improvements, parents shouldn't make fast-food meals a regular part of their children's diets.

The national non-profit Corporate Accountability, a frequent critic of McDonald's, points out that a 600-calorie meal is still excessive for some young and less active children.

"McDonald's is faced with consumer demand for healthier kids' foods, but it's hard to convert junk foods to health foods in any meaningful way," said Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University. "The approach here is tweaking." Still, argues Wechsler, it would be a mistake to "let perfect be the enemy of good".

(c) The Washington Post with additional reporting by Fearghal O'Connor

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