McDonald's has removed high-fructose corn syrup from its sandwich buns and taken artificial preservatives out of items including Chicken McNuggets as it tries to appeal to diners hungering for more clarity and cleanliness in what they eat.
The Golden Arches has been tinkering with ingredient changes behind the scenes for about a year-and-a-half. Now, as the company's broader turnaround progresses, it feels it is far enough along on its U.S. food journey to talk about it publicly.
"The vision and the commitment is here. We are creating a different food culture at McDonald's and that attitude is infused in everything that we do," Mike Andres, president-McDonald's USA, said at a meeting with reporters at the company's headquarters.
On Monday, he and others outlined some of the newest moves meant to suggest cleaner foods that diners are asking for. Among the updates: McDonald's removed high-fructose corn syrup from buns used for burgers, chicken sandwiches and Filet-O-Fish and replaced it with sucrose. It also removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets and pork sausage patties, and from two styles of eggs: the omelet-style eggs used for certain breakfast sandwiches and scrambled eggs served on platters.
The company also hit one commitment months earlier than planned, switching to use only chicken not treated with antibiotics important to human medicine now rather than by March 2017.
The latest updates come after other changes including switching from using margarine for Egg McMuffins back to real butter, and swapping out iceberg lettuce for a mix including romaine, baby spinach and baby kale in its salads.
"We're taking a new approach toward a quality food story that does not and will not sacrifice the familiar and delicious taste that our guests know and love," Mr. Andres said.
Mr. Andres said the changes discussed Monday affect ingredients in nearly half of the food on its menu. They mark the latest steps the company has taken to reinvigorate its core menu, a move that differs from some other chains that promote limited-time items rather than rethinking their main menu items.
"We want to make the core menu the best it can possibly be," Mr. Andres said.
Without sharing details, he said the company is talking about work on items including its french fries and is "looking to do some things with the Big Mac in the next year."
He said different sizes of the iconic sandwich have been doing very well in Columbus and Dallas.
Part of McDonald's strategy is telling people more about how it gets and prepares its food. McDonald's recently began using the phrase "The simpler the better" and updated its website in part to make it easier to find nutrition details and more information about its food.
Chef Jessica Foust, the chain's director of culinary innovation, outlined how to prepare one of the recently tweaked items, the Egg McMuffin. She went through steps including toasting English muffins and softening sticks of Grassland brand butter in the microwave to cracking eggs, placing them in the special circle holder on the griddle and breaking the yolks with a pincher tool to ensure they are not served runny.
"Our culinary focus is more important than ever," said Ms. Foust, who serves as one of the faces of the company's food focus, including an appearance in a commercial for McDonald's in Southern California for chef-crafted sandwiches. "As a restaurant business, food is at the center and we have to renew our focus on the food."
McDonald's is not the only restaurant that wants to remind consumers that its food is, well, real food. Wendy's, for example, has a paid post housed on the New York Times' website called "Fresh Food Fast: From Farm to Fork."
While McDonald's is not talking specifically about local sourcing, it is sharing stories from some suppliers. That salad switch, for one, was not all that difficult to pull off as lettuce only takes 60 to 90 days to grow, said Ali Leon, VP-Ready Pac Foods, one of McDonald's produce suppliers. The new mix includes two-and-a-half cups of vegetables in an entree-sized salad, she said, without sharing the nutritional differences from the prior version.
For McDonald's, making other changes can take a lot more time. The company needs to roll any updates out to more than 14,000 U.S. locations, most of which are run by franchisees.
"We're ready to be better, we want to be better, we're listening to our customer," said Marion Gross, senior VP-supply chain, McDonald's USA.
The decision to remove artificial preservatives from McNuggets meant changing the cooking oil the nuggets were cooked in, because it had a preservative. Now, restaurants will have to be aware that the oil won't last as long.
While McDonald's is largely focused on its core menu of well-known fast food, it continues to try out items meant for local markets.
Attendees at Monday's event got to taste breakfast bowls the company has been selling in Southern California as well as the Gilroy garlic fries currently being sold in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company is also selling an Old Bay seasoned Filet-O-Fish in the Mid-Atlantic region, along with the Lobster Roll sandwich available in New England.
Diners across the country should not expect to taste all of those items anytime soon.
Take the breakfast bowl. It has "done very well in Southern California" and McDonald's is looking to take it elsewhere, Mr. Andres said. He soon added: "I don't see it as a national rollout."