McDonald's Bows to Pressure With More Healthful Happy Meal

Revamped Product Has Apples, Fewer Fries and Calories

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Bowing to increasing pressure from groups fighting against childhood (and adult) obesity, McDonald's today announced menu modifications meant to help the chain's nutritional profile, especially for the Happy Meal.

The new Happy Meal, which McDonald's will begin rolling out in September, will automatically include both produce (a quarter cup of apple slices) and a new smaller size french fries (1.1 ounces) along with the choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets, and choice of beverage, including fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low-fat milk. The chain aims to have the new Happy Meals available in all 14,000 U.S. restaurants during first quarter 2012.

In lieu of fries, customers can get two bags of apple slices. McDonald's began offering apple slices, then known as Apple Dippers because of a caramel sauce that accompanied the fruit, but in the new version of the Happy Meal, the caramel sauce will not be offered.

The changes will result in an estimated 20% reduction in calories for the "most popular" Happy Meals, said McDonald's ("most popular" presumably means the meals with the fries). According to the company, 88% of McDonald's customers were aware of the apple option, but apples were only chosen in 11% of Happy Meal orders. Overall, Happy Meals are estimated to provide 10% of the chain's U.S. business.

Other menu modifications include McDonald's promise that by 2020, the chain will reduce added sugar, saturated fat and calories through varied portion sizes and what the company called reformulations. Many of the chicken items have gone through a 10% reduction in sodium; McDonald's will reduce sodium an average of 15% across its national menu by 2015.

The announcement comes just weeks after the National Restaurant Association, in conjunction with Healthy Dining, launched a voluntary initiative by the restaurant industry to spur chains to offer and promote healthier kids-meal options. Chains such as Burger King and Chili's jumped on board, but McDonald's was noticeably missing from the list of participants. When asked whether there were any plans to join the initiative, a spokeswoman for McDonald's said, "We are a longtime supporter of the NRA, and we'll continue to evaluate our participation in programs in the future."

According to the press release on the menu changes: "In 2012, McDonald's will also raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives. The company will promote nutrition messages in 100% of its national kids' communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging. McDonald's will also provide funding for grass-roots community nutrition awareness programs."

The release also said the company will promote options that meet "rigorous" standards set forth by the Council of Better Business Bureau's Food Pledge nutrition standards by first quarter 2012. McDonald's has supported the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative since 2006.

Earlier this month the initiative said it would enforce the same nutritional standards for all 17 of its voluntary members, rather than letting companies pick and choose their own rules. And the standards will be tightened as of December 2013 to the point where one in three products now advertised to kids would be off the air, unless recipes are reformulated with less sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

A spokeswoman for McDonald's declined to discuss details of future marketing initiatives. The company has been under intense pressure -- it has even been slapped with lawsuits -- from consumer-advocacy organizations calling for the chain to eliminate marketing to kids altogether, including toys in Happy Meals and mascot Ronald McDonald.

And although McDonald's has stood by its practices, products and clown, it has significantly dropped its measured media spending on the Happy Meal, according to Kantar, despite earlier this year rolling out about a half-dozen ads by Publicis Groupe 's Leo Burnett with Ronald McDonald as the centerpiece, encouraging kids to visit its Happy Meal website. In the first quarter, McDonald's dropped its Happy Meal marketing by nearly 46% over the same period on the prior year.

While vocal consumer groups that frequently call McDonald's out for its marketing practices are happy to see the chain make healthier offerings, they would still like to see the end of marketing to children.

"McDonald's deserves credit for not only taking these steps, but for acknowledging its role in today's epidemic of diet-related disease in so doing," Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, said in a statement. "It's a good first step, however, the corporation has yet to address the central issue, its aggressive brand marketing to kids. And so long as burgers, fries, and soda offerings to kids, alongside toys, remain central to that brand, health professionals will continue to call for the marketing to stop."

On the governmental front, McDonald's and other restaurants were banned in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties from offering toys with kids' meals if they didn't meet certain nutritional criteria. Similar legislation was recently proposed in New York.

McDonald's, along with many other chains including Burger King and Wendy's , last year was the target of a study by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, which said fast feeders were marketing to children now more than ever.

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