By Allison Aubrey for NPR: The Salt.
Burgers and chicken nuggets are still the mainstay of the Happy Meal. But on Thursday McDonald’s announced its goal to market more balanced kids meals around the globe.
The company says by the end of 2022, at least 50 percent or more of the kids meal options listed on menus will meet new global Happy Meal nutrition criteria: Meals will have 600 calories or less; no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; no more than 650 mg sodium; and no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar.
These goals build on the commitments McDonald’s has made to improve options for kids. And, in many cases, these goals represent small tweaks. For instance, to reduce sugar, McDonald’s locations in the U.S. have already switched to organic apple juice that is lower in sugar and calories. Now, the company plans to reformulate chocolate milk to a lower-sugar version. In addition, they will downsize the size of the fries served with the six-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal. Currently it comes with a standard small fry, but going forward this will change to a smaller kiddie size.
The company also says it will aim to use its size and scale to leverage innovative marketing to “help serve more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean protein and water in Happy Meals,” according to the company release.
In a statement, the American Heart Association applauded McDonald’s planned changes to the Happy Meal. “This is an important step in the right direction and we look forward to seeing how today’s announcement will lead to kids eating fewer calories and less sugar, saturated fat and sodium,” the group’s CEO, Nancy Brown, said.
Not everyone is impressed by McDonald’s announcement. “This is more of the same. Old tricks from an old dog,” says Alexa Kaczmarski of Corporate Accountability, a watchdog group that campaigns for McDonald’s to change the way it markets to children. “It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, Happy Meals are vehicles for hooking kids on junk food and building brand affinity for life.”
So, when will McDonald’s customers see alternatives to the burgers and nuggets for kids’ entrees? McDonald’s is testing the waters outside the U.S.
Last month McDonald’s in Italy introduced a new Happy Meal entrée called the Junior Chicken —a lean, grilled chicken sandwich. McDonald’s Australia is “currently exploring new vegetable and lean protein options and McDonald’s France is looking at new vegetable offerings,” the company said in a statement.
“The U.S. will keep an eye on these,” says Julia Braun, a registered dietitian and head of global nutrition at McDonald’s. “We’re committed to exploring new options.”
Outside kids’ meals, McDonald’s has introduced vegetarian and vegan burger options in parts of Europe. “I tasted it. I enjoyed it,” Braun says of the veggie burger in France.
As for plans to introduce a veggie burger in U.S. stores? Braun says “it needs to be led by the customer.” The fast-food giant would need to see that the demand is there. “It’s got to have mass appeal.”
In announcing its new goals, McDonald’s also touted its success in removing sugary soda from the Happy Meal section of menu boards. This action was taken as part of a commitment with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group that aims to empower kids to develop lifelong healthy habits.
“From day one, Healthier Generation knew our work with McDonald’s could influence broad scale improvements to meal options for kids everywhere,” said Dr. Howell Wechsler, Chief Executive Officer of Alliance for a Healthier Generation in a statement. “Today’s announcement represents meaningful progress.”
McDonald’s says since 2013, the company has tracked a 14 percent increase in the number of Happy Meals ordered with milk, juice or water. According to the company, “for the first time, more than half of Happy Meals ordered in the U.S. have included water, milk or juice as their beverage of choice.”