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McDonald's Makes Happy Meals (Slightly) Healthier

By Published on .

Credit: McDonalds

McDonald's has fresh goals to improve the food it markets to kids, an effort that appears lofty to some and lame to others.

The plan is being touted by the Golden Arches as "an expanded commitment to families." It comes with the backing of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group formed by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation that McDonald's began working with in 2013, when it took soda off the Happy Meal menu board.

The plans described Thursday were quickly met with praise from the American Heart Association and others, but also a bit of backlash. Essentially, moves like no longer showing a cheeseburger on the Happy Meal menu and serving fewer fries with a six-piece McNuggets meal might send signals over time that lead people to change how they eat. But they aren't exactly going to turn unhealthy kids healthy.

And any parents who feel better about the kids' options at McDonald's might bring their families more often, leading to the potential consumption of even more fries, burgers and McNuggets than they were getting before the switch.

Family push

McDonald's recently began offering Happy Meals for $3 across the United States in its bid to become even more of a family destination. In the U.S., starting soon, only regular hamburgers, along with four-piece and six-piece Chicken McNuggets, will appear on the Happy Meal menu as the main items. Customers who ask for cheeseburgers will still be able to get them. McDonald's is also replacing the small fries that come in the six-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal with the smaller kids-sized fries, a switch it says reduces the calories and sodium in the fries served in that Happy Meal by half.

McDonald's will also start offering chocolate milk made with less added sugar. And chocolate milk won't be shown on the Happy Meal menu. (Like that cheeseburger, it will be available if a customer asks for it.) Bottled water will be added as a featured beverage on the Happy Meal menu.

The company says its decision to take soda off the Happy Meal menu has had an impact: In December, 52 percent of Happy Meals ordered in the U.S. included water, milk or juice, up from 38 percent in December 2013, according to McDonald's. Putting it another way, for the first time, more than half the Happy Meals sold in the U.S. are being sold without soft drinks. (It should be noted, however, that Americans in general are drinking fewer soft drinks than they were a few years ago.) Other chains have taken similar steps on soda.

McDonald's other plans in 2013, which covered 20 major markets including the U.S., involved increasing customers' access to fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy and water. On Thursday, the chain said many of those markets are ahead of schedule in their progress on those efforts. Now, it has five new global Happy Meal goals.

By the end of 2022, at least 50 percent of the Happy Meals listed on menus globally will contain no more than 600 calories, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, 650 milligrams of sodium and 10 percent of calories from added sugar.

Right now, only 28 percent of the Happy Meal combinations on menu boards in 20 major markets meet the new nutrition criteria. To hit or exceed its 50 percent goal, restaurants will have to add, change or remove items from the Happy Meal menu. McDonald's Italy last month introduced a grilled Junior Chicken sandwich to its Happy Meals, while McDonald's France is looking at some new vegetable offerings.

McDonald's also said it is removing artificial flavors, added colors from artificial sources and reducing artificial preservatives where feasible, steps with which it has already been tinkering. McDonald's U.S. in 2016 took artificial preservatives out of Chicken McNuggets, which have no artificial flavors or colors.

Another goal is to make it easier to find Happy Meal nutrition info, or as McDonald's says, to "be transparent" with that info.

Marketing to kids

On the advertising front, McDonald's says it wants to market more responsibly. All the Happy Meal bundles advertised to kids must meet the company's new nutrition criteria, and McDonald's wants to use "innovative marketing" to help drive bigger sales of fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean protein and water in Happy Meals. It says it plans to measure how much it sells and share best practices and results.

The American Heart Association says McDonald's plans to promote water and advertise healthier side items "will further the momentum in consumer demand for healthier foods and beverages."

Panera Bread, which has called on chains including McDonald's to offer better kids' meals, applauded the moves.

Others were also pleased. McDonald's nutritional changes are "a welcome next step," Margo Wootan, VP for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement, adding that other chains should follow its lead.

But Alexa Kaczmarski, national campaign organizer for the group Corporate Accountability, lashed out at the announcement.

"This is more of the same. Old tricks from an old dog," Kaczmarski said in a statement, calling Happy Meals "vehicles for hooking kids on junk food and building brand affinity for life."

"Not listing a cheeseburger on a menu and sending chocolate milk back to the lab is a far cry from the change people are demanding," she continued. "Marketing to kids is manipulative and misleading, period. This is just a new wrapper on the same old greasy burger."

Asked about the criticism, McDonald's points to the changes seen in consumer behavior when soda came off the Happy Meal menu. "We're continuing to raise the bar on our food as we work to build a better McDonald's, and that includes looking across our entire menu," it says.

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