McDonald's will offer side salads and fruit as an option in its value meals in its bigger markets, and will also begin pushing healthier drinks for its Happy Meals.
The moves are part of a number of health-centric global initiatives the chain announced today with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a non-profit founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association to reduce childhood obesity.
"This commitment reflects McDonald's progress regarding nutrition and well-being," said McDonald's CEO Don Thompson. He noted that it's "another important step in our journey. And we know there's more to do. We will continue to use our size and scale around the world to help educate, empower and encourage our customers to make informed choices so they can live a balanced and healthy lifestyle."
As part of its commitment, McDonald's will only list water, milk and juice as beverage options for Happy Meals on menu boards, in-store and external advertising. It will also utilize Happy Meal and "other packaging innovations and designs to generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/reduced-fat dairy, or water options for kids." The company promised to "ensure 100% of all advertising directed to children to include a fun nutrition or children's well-being message."
That McDonald's will be offering a side salad or fruit as an option in its value meals is significant in that to date it has only offered fries. How the salad and fruit options will affect the price of the value meals is unknown at this point, and how many consumers will choose the fruit or salad remains to be seen.
McDonald's has been historically slammed by consumer-advocacy groups for its food, especially for marketing Happy Meals to kids. And though some activists commend the moves, they believe there is more for the industry to do. "Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy's, and other chains," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids."
Corporate Accountability International, another watchdog group, in May at the annual McDonald's shareholders meeting submitted a proposal asking the chain to assess the impact of its nutritional efforts. The proposal was voted down by shareholders.
Coca-Cola is the exclusive soft-drink supplier to McDonald's, which Beverage Digest said is Coke's largest fountain account by far. In a statement, Coca-Cola said, "We applaud McDonald's efforts to partner with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Obesity is a serious and complex global health problem which will take everyone's collective efforts. Earlier this year, we announced four global well-being commitments, including one to not advertise any of our beverages to children under 12. We have proudly partnered with McDonald's since 1955 and supply them with a wide variety of beverages, including low and no-calorie choices."
McDonald's in 2011 overhauled its Happy Meals to begin containing apple slices and fewer fries. It also offered low-fat dairy option, thought it was not the default. The result was a 20% reduction in calories in what the chain calls its most popular Happy Meals.
How McDonald's will market its Happy Meals moving forward remains to be seen, but the chain in early 2012 launched a Happy Meal campaign highlighting nutrition. Subsequent Happy Meal ads have highlighted lowfat milk and apple slices as opposed to the fries.
McDonald's will start the initiatives in 20 major markets representing more than 85% of global sales, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Taiwan, the U.K. and the U.S. An independent third party will assess its progress. McDonald's said that 30 to 50% of the 20 major markets will be implemented within three years and 100% of the 20 markets by 2020.