In Search of the Healthier Happy Meal

McDonald’s announced on July 26, 2011, that it would shrink the portion size of french fries and add fruit to its Happy Meal in an effort to reduce the overall calorie count by about 20 percent, starting with a limited market roll-out in September and in all 14,000 U.S. McDonald’s restaurants by April 2012. Critics contend that the fast-food giant, under pressure from health advocates and parents, as well as in anticipation of future federal regulations on nutrition labeling and information, did not go far enough to address the advertising and promotional linking of toys and fast food.

Lawmakers and consumers have increasingly united around this front, especially as influential advocates such as First Lady Michelle Obama embark on initiatives to solve the problem of childhood obesity.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 17 percent (12.5 million) of American children today are overweight or obese, which puts them at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled. In 2010, San Francisco passed an ordinance to restrict the fast-food industry’s practice of giving away toys with children’s meals. Recently, the New York City Council proposed the Fast Food Toy Ban Bill, which would emulate the San Francisco ordinance by limiting any meal that comes with a toy to under 500 calories. Last month, the federal government’s new food group symbol, MyPlate, was introduced to help consumers make healthier food choices, placing an emphasis on the fruit, vegetable, grains, protein and dairy food groups.

The FDA’s own entry into the fray of obesity control was to propose regulations that would require calorie labeling on menus and menu boards applicable not only in the fast-food industry, but in the majority of chain restaurants and retail food establishments.  City ordinances would in all likelihood not run afoul of the FDA’s own regulations, as the agency’s proposed regulations in relation to state and local laws would:

  • prevent state and local governments from imposing any different or additional nutrition labeling requirements for food sold in restaurants and similar retail food establishments covered by the federal requirements; and
  • permit state and local governments to establish nutrition labeling requirements for establishments not covered by the new law or regulations.

McDonald’s revamped its Happy Meal choices in 2004 by offering soda alternatives, such as 1 percent milk, with a meal of hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets and fries. It also offered an option of replacing fries with sliced apples served with low-fat caramel sauce.

According to current nutrition information provided by the company, a McDonald’s Happy Meal with chicken nuggets contains 520 calories and 26 grams of fat. The new offering, with 1 percent milk, will total 410 calories and 19 grams of fat.  The new french fry holders in Happy Meals will contain 1.1 ounces of potatoes, down from 2.4. Apple slices will be included as a side dish, but could vary to include carrots, raisins, pineapple slices or mandarin oranges, depending on the time of year and the region in which they were being served. However, critics noted that McDonald’s move did not address the contentious issue of the toy product that comes with each Happy Meal.

Other restaurant chains have gone further than McDonald’s in answering calls for improving the fare on children’s menus and eliminating marketing appeals. In June, Jack in the Box announced the end of toys in its children’s meals, and in July, Burger King, IHOP, Outback Steakhouse, Denny’s, and more than a dozen other restaurant chains backed the “Kids Live Well” effort led by the National Restaurant Association to serve and promote healthier options for children. Interested companies must offer a children’s meal with 600 calories or less and one other side item with 200 calories or less. Additionally, the nutrition information must be on display or available upon request.

However, some in the restaurant industry speculate that McDonald’s move would help the brand maintain its lead position among families with young children.  Others have noted that although McDonald’s is trying to strike a balance between nutrition and cravings, “consumer are going to chose what they want.”