McDonald's Move To Make Happy Meals Healthier Is The Right Thing To Do

February 21, 2018

McDonald's Move To Make Happy Meals Healthier Is The Right Thing To Do

An announcement by McDonald’s last week that it is implementing new nutritional standards for its Happy Meals could not come at a better time, both for the chain and for Americans' health and wellness.

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An announcement by McDonald’s last week that it is implementing new nutritional standards for its Happy Meals could not come at a better time, both for the chain and for Americans' health and wellness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here in the United States, the incidence of obesity in children and adolescents has more than tripled since the 1970s. Take a look around — you’ll see that visually and mathematically translates to one in five kids. The CDC also reports that 34.4% of all kids aged 2-19 eat fast food on a given day and that the consumption of fast food has been linked to weight gain as this age group enters adulthood.

The McDonald’s move is even more important as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue rolled back some of the nutritional requirements for school lunch programs back in May of last year. He also just announced his plan to replace the existing structure for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), where recipients are allowed to choose their own foods from the USDA’s list of approved foods in grocery stores, to receive about half of their benefits in what the agency is calling “America’s Harvest Box,” which would be delivered to homes. Ironically, the box would not contain any foods that are actually harvested, but would contain items such as shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.

Many have argued for years that the healthier offering failures by McDonald’s point to the fact that the chain's customers just don’t care about eating those healthier options. But times have changed, and more people (especially parents) are reading labels and opting for healthier options at home and when eating out. Soda consumption continues to plummet, and bottled water sales continue to rise.

McDonald’s has posted its five global Happy Meal goals:

  • Offer Balanced Meals. Happy Meals must be 600 calories or less, have no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat, have less than 650 milligrams of sodium and have no more than 10% of calories from added sugars.
  • Simplify Ingredients. Removing artificial flavors and colors and reducing artificial preservatives “where feasible” without sacrificing taste, safety, quality or cost.
  • Be Transparent. Making all nutritional information readily available in-store as well as electronically.
  • Market Responsibly. All advertising and marketing to kids for Happy Meals will meet the new nutritional standards.
  • Leverage Marketing To Increase Consumption and Excitement. For fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean protein and water.

Keybridge, a public policy consulting firm issued a report on the progress that McDonald’s made in 2016 based on the company’s partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation that was formed in 2013. The report details the progress that the fast food giant has made, which in all criteria exceeded their stated goals, except for one that just met the goal exactly.

There is another major change – this time around, McDonald’s is not trying to change behaviors with new offerings like veggie burgers and salads that its customers were not used to (or did not want). It is making more subtle changes, like reducing sodium levels to under 650 milligrams, reformulating its chocolate milk to contain less sugar (the average 2% chocolate milk now contains almost 24 grams of sugar, both added and naturally occurring from the milk itself, as compared with just over 12 grams in plain 2% milk, all of which are naturally occurring), reducing the quantity of French fries in a Happy Meal and making bottled water the default beverage in Happy Meals. One change might meet some resistance, though – eliminating their cheeseburger, which adds 200 milligrams of sodium to the meal. Expect to see this change short-lived and be replaced with a lower-sodium cheese instead. McDonald’s also says it will introduce new menu items that are kid-friendly, including a grilled chicken sandwich.

Wall Street and the company should be thrilled as these goals also translate to increased sales in bottled water, milk, juice, low-fat yogurts and fruit, according to the Keybridge study. McDonald’s may well become the leader in continuing the movement that First Lady Michelle Obama started, to reverse childhood obesity and make America healthier.