McDonald’s Happy Meals might be getting happier – at least from a nutrition perspective.
The fast food giant announced Thursday its worldwide goals to reduce the number of calories, limit sodium and provide more nutritional balance in the iconic meal for kids it launched in 1979. The plan, which highlights five goals, also will target how it markets its fast food to children.
The company says by the end of 2022, at least 50 percent or more of the kid’s meal options listed on menus will have:
- 600 calories or less
– no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
– no more than 650 mg sodium
– no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar
In 2013, McDonald’s began working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit co-founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, to develop a plan to increase fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy and water offerings in 20 major markets. Thursday’s announcement was an expansion of that plan to 120 markets.
More than one-third of kids and teens eat fast food on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heavy consumption of fast food has been linked to weight gain in adults and poorer diets in children.
So, a big move toward healthier options by a fast food giant like McDonald’s – with about 37,000 locations in over 100 countries – is an important step in the right direction, said AHA Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown, who hopes the pledge will spur others in the industry to follow suit.
“We look forward to seeing how today’s announcement will lead to kids eating fewer calories and less sugar, saturated fat and sodium,” she said. “In addition to offering healthier meal combinations, McDonald’s commitment to promoting water and advertising healthier side items in kids meals will further the momentum in consumer demand for healthier foods and beverages.”
Such changes can have widespread impact. For example, in 2016, when it added California-grown clementines as a seasonal fresh fruit choice in Happy Meals, the company served an average of 108 clementines per minute that year.
Restaurant offerings and advertising play a “significant” role in driving consumer demand for healthy menu items, Brown said. So, the entire fast food industry should take stock and make healthy menus the norm for kids. “This is particularly impactful when families are eating out on a budget.”
Since 2013 other fast food chains, such as Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC and Dairy Queen, have made pledges to remove sugar-sweetened fountain drinks from their menu boards and offer healthier drinks and sides with kids meals.
In the United States, the staples of the Happy Meal still will be chicken nuggets and hamburgers. But McDonald’s restaurants elsewhere already are looking into healthier alternatives.
In January, Italy McDonald’s introduced a new Happy Meal entrée called the “Junior Chicken,” a lean grilled chicken sandwich. Restaurants in France are considering new vegetable offerings, and Australia is exploring new vegetables and lean protein.
This new global commitment is particularly encouraging, said Penny Kris-Etherton, a distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University.
“Since heart disease is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, the Happy Meal reformulations could benefit the risk of heart disease globally,” said Kris-Etherton, past chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee. “Knowing that many children globally eat at McDonald’s fairly regularly, the menu reformulations have the potential to have a significant impact on (cardiovascular disease) risk reduction.”
In the U.S. this year, McDonald’s plans to reformulate the chocolate milk to reduce the amount of added sugar, and later this year, bottled water will be added as a featured beverage choice on Happy Meal menu boards. Last year, the company substituted its apple juice for an organic variety with 45 less calories and half the total sugar.
The fast food chain said it also will use its size and scale to “leverage innovative marketing, including packaging and promotions and use of new technologies, such as kiosks and mobile apps, to help serve more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean protein and water in Happy Meals.”
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