With McDonald’s set to change the Happy Meal forever, it merely represents the latest step in the Empire’s push toward a more ethical business model.
As of June this year, when kids open up their McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes, the toy inside may not be the only surprise they receive.
As part of their continued efforts to shed the junk-food image, the world’s largest burger chain has announced changes to the contents of the standard Happy Meal, which has long been criticized by health advocates and parents alike for being associated with the growing incidence of childhood obesity.
In a bid to reduce the calorie, sodium, saturated fat, and sugar content being consumed by children, McDonald’s will remove cheeseburgers and chocolate milk from its Happy Meal menu. While diners will still be able to request these items, this exclusion is designed to reduce how often they’re ordered.
In response to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! speech in 2010, which petitioned for healthier kids foods, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) established the Kids LiveWell, which set nutrition standards for kids’ meals that restaurants can voluntarily adopt.
Since launching in 2011, more than 150 restaurant chains in over 42,000 locations have participated of which McDonald’s was one. Since then, McDonald’s has been progressively improving the nutritional content of its Happy Meals. Such efforts have included:
- Adding apple slices to the menu and shrinking the serving size of French fries (2011)
- Adding whole fresh fruit in the form of a local version of a mandarin (called a “clementine”), switching to fat-free chocolate milk, removing soft drinks and adding water, milk, or juice as the standard menu options (2012)
- Adding yogurt as a side option (2014)
- Removing artificial preservatives from chicken nuggets (2016)
- Switching juice brands to one that contains less sugar and half the calories (2017).
Research suggests that around 15% of McDonald’s customers order Happy Meals, which equates to approximately $10 million in revenue per day. So, it’s easy to see why the scramble among fast-food retailers, to attract that family dollar, is fierce.
The result is that McDonald’s rivals are also striving to provide healthier menu options for kids. For example, Burger King, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Subway, Chipotle, IHOP, and Dairy Queen have also removed soft drinks from its children’s menus, and most of them offer a healthier option as part of their menu for children.
Taking healthy innovation a step further, Burger King is said to be offering the first lower-calorie French fry. These crinkle-cut “Satisfries” contain 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than a standard batch of fries, which is achieved by dipping fries into a batter that prevents oil absorption.
Of course, not all patrons are satisfied with these changes, which is reflected by the 14% decrease in orders since eliminating soft drinks from the Happy Meal menu. And when you consider that across the 14,000 McDonald’s outlets in America, the total number of people served every day is the equivalent to Australia’s population, that’s quite a significant drop. To their credit, however, the conglomerate remains committed to the cause.
By the end of 2022, McDonald’s plans to have at least half of its Happy Meal options meeting new nutrition criteria, which stipulates: 600 calories or less; no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat; less than 650mg of sodium; and no more than 10% of calories from added sugar. The cheeseburger and chocolate milk options were found not to meet these new standards; however, the chain says they are working to reduce the sugar in the chocolate milk and so predicts this item will return to the Happy Meal menu at some point in the future.
Additional planned changes include serving a smaller, child-sized portion of fries with the six-piece chicken nugget Happy Meal, which will reduce the sodium and calorie content from the fries by half. Bottled water will also be added as an option to the Happy Meal menu, although this will cost extra. Currently, the Happy Meal menu includes milk, chocolate milk, and apple juice, with a soft drink available upon request at no extra cost.
In 20 major markets across the world, 28% of McDonald’s Happy Meal combinations today do satisfy the new nutrition criteria. Reuters has reported that McDonald’s in the U.S. are on track to achieve the calorie, sugar, and fat goals, and to be 78% compliant on sodium by June of this year.
On an international level, McDonald’s have stipulated that at least half of the Happy Meal options available must meet the new nutritional guidelines. In some countries, new menu items are being added to comply; for example, in Italy, a grilled chicken sandwich was added as a Happy Meal menu option.
Of course, people may argue that if the burger chain is truly serious about the health of their patrons then they should consider further restructuring menus to encourage greater purchasing of healthier options; for example, how about pricing water so it’s cheaper (or even free?) and repricing soft drinks and other sugar-laden options a whole lot higher?
How much of a dint it will put in the bloated child obesity problem is yet to be seen; but desperate times, desperate measures.