Starting in the fall, McDonald's Happy Meals will automatically contain ¼-cup of peeled apples and a smaller portion of french fries. The changes will cut the classic menu item's calorie count by 20 percent.
McDonald's unveiled this and other nutrition commitments July 26 via a live webcast with Jan Fields, McDonald's USA president, and senior director of nutrition Dr. Cindy Goody.
"Today we reinforce our commitment to give customers what they want: additional choices," Fields said. "Right now, America is having important conversations about childhood obesity and we're proud that McDonald's has been engaged in those conversations. We're ready to take bigger actions."
McDonald's first introduced apples as a Happy Meal choice in 2004. Low-fat milk also was introduced at that time as a soft drink alternative.
Beginning in September, the apples will come automatic; however, they will not include caramel dipping sauce. The french fries will be 1.1 ounces, compared to 2.4 ounces currently.
Consumers who choose to forego the french fries will receive two bags of apple slices upon request. Also new is fat-free chocolate milk. Soft drinks are still an option by request, but will not be advertised.
McDonald's goal is to have a complete rollout of the new Happy Meals at all 14,000 U.S. units by the end of the first quarter 2012.
The new Happy Meal will meet the rigorous Council of Better Business Bureaus Food Pledge nutrition standards, among other guidelines.
"We recognize the importance of aligning with nutritional initiatives such as the USDA's new MyPlate," Fields said. "We've already doubled milk consumption among kids in our restaurants and, since 2005, have almost doubled our purchase of fruits. Over the next few years, we have aggressive plans to expand our fruit, veggie and low-fat dairy options."
Other nutritional commitments
In addition to downsizing the Happy Meal, McDonald's has pledged to reduce sodium count by 15 percent across its entire menu by 2015. The chain has already completed a 10 percent reduction in the majority of chicken options.
Also, by 2020, McDonald's plans to have a reduction in added sugars, saturated fat and calories through varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations.
Additionally, the company has pledged to increase nutritional awareness among its customers and employees. In doing so, McDonald's executives will embark upon a national "listening tour" beginning next month. During the tour, they will hear directly from parents and nutritional experts about how McDonald's can play a role in this topic.
McDonald's is in the process of establishing a Kids' Food and Nutrition Advisory Board comprised of parents and nutrition experts to help develop effective marketing messages and programming for kids. A third-party organization will collaborate with the QSR giant to ensure progress on these commitments, which will be reported publicly.
"Throughout this journey, we've been transparent and accountable and will continue to be," Fields said.
Finally, on top of providing nutritional information on its website, tray liners and select packaging, McDonald's also announced a new mobile app that will provide such information. The app will feature a restaurant locator and other details already available on the company's website.
Deflecting some controversy?
Fields said now is the right time to rollout such big changes, as childhood obesity and nutrition is "such an important topic." McDonald's and other QSRs have taken a big brunt of the blame for rising obesity rates.
Specifically, the Happy Meal had a tumultuous year; banned in some cities and the focal point of a lawsuit against McDonald's. Most of the controversy stems from the inclusion of toys, considered an unfair marketing practice by many health and parenting advocate groups.
The "skinnier" Happy Meals will still contain toys.
"That's the fun part. That's what makes it happy. It's all about the experience and we don't want to take that away," Fields said.
Fields told Good Morning America that 100 percent of national advertising to children will include a nutrition announcement with it.
"We're trying to make children aware of the nutritional importance of their diet. In addition, we only advertise the healthy items in the Happy Meal and have been doing that for a number of years. We're confident about this being a great message for children," she said.
The new Happy Meal is the latest menu change in a long list the company has made, including adding breakfast in 1977; reducing Chicken McNuggets' sodium levels by 13 percent in 2003; and reducing trans fats in 2008.
"We started with only burgers, fries and shakes," Fields said. "Our menu has grown and changed because our customers have changed."
The announcement comes just a week after the company launched the McDonald's Champions of Play program. in conjunction with its sponsorship of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
The new global program's purpose is to encourage a balanced approach to nutrition and activity for children. In doing so, participating McDonald's countries will initiate grassroots activities for children ages 6 to 10. The program will feature a website offering balanced eating and "fun" play facts and challenges; digital engagement that allows kids to track their physical activities online; and special Happy Meal packaging featuring information and tips on balanced eating and play.
It also comes shortly after a new campaign called Kids LiveWell was launched by the National Restaurant Association. The program, introduced earlier this month, includes 19 inaugural participants such as Burger King and El Pollo Loco. McDonald's, however, is not included on the initial list, but Fields said the company works closely with the NRA and this announcement supports healthier standards in the industry.
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Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.