CHICAGO — Under pressure from health and children’s advocacy groups, McDonald’s Corp. is making changes to its famed Happy Meals.
The fast food chain will add a serving of fruit or vegetable to all of the meals, which are aimed at children, and shrink the portion of french fries.
The changes, announced Tuesday, will take effect in September in some markets and then roll out to all 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. by April.
McDonald’s said it first experimented with cutting fries entirely from the Happy Meals, but children and parents rebelled.
“People come to McDonald’s and, first of all, they want the choice and the control to be theirs, but their expectation of a Happy Meal does include a fry,” said Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA. “When we did it without fries, there was a huge disappointment factor.”
The new french fry holders in Happy Meals will contain 1.1 ounces of potatoes, down from 2.4. Apple slices will often be included as the healthful side dish, but it could also be carrots, raisins, pineapple slices or mandarin oranges, depending on the time of year and the region in which they’re being served, Fields said.
Although subject to variation depending on what’s ordered, the new meals will represent, on average, a 20 percent decrease in calories, the chain said.
Fields said Happy Meal prices will not go up as a result of the changes. But the chain has raised prices this year as a result of soaring commodity costs.
As the world’s largest restaurant chain by sales, McDonald’s has been under intense scrutiny for the nutritional quality of its food and its marketing to children. Critics have strongly challenged the chain’s practice of selling kids’ meals that include a toy, connecting it to the nation’s obesity crisis.
Last year, San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Calif., banned toys with meals at fast food restaurants if the meals didn’t meet certain nutritional criteria. Similar legislation has been proposed in New York.
“We know we’re a leader and we know we need to be part of the solution,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said. “But we can’t be looked at as providing the only solution.”
The business strategy for McDonald’s is to make parents feel less guilty about feeding fast food to their children, so they’ll become more frequent customers.
“People tell us they want to feel good about visiting us regularly, about the food options that we serve, and want to visit us even more often,” Fields said.
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.
In 2006, McDonald’s began advertising a version of its Happy Meal that included chicken nuggets and the apple slices, marketed as Apple Dippers because of the caramel sauce. The result is that 88 percent of McDonald’s customers know about the fruit option with Happy Meals, according to the company. But only 11 percent of kids meals are ordered with apples instead of fries.
In the revamped Happy Meals, the caramel sauce will not be offered.
Geeta Maker-Clark, a family physician at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois, described the changes as “really good steps.”
“I applaud any move toward including more whole food into a heavily processed meal,” she said. “Bringing a whole food into it shifts the pendulum toward something more healthy, and I applaud the decreased portion sizes.”
Beginning next year, the company said it will include a nutritional message in any advertising, marketing or packaging materials directed at children.
McDonald’s is also pledging to reduce by 15 percent the amount of sodium in its food. The company recently reduced sodium in its chicken nuggets by 10 percent, on top of a 13 percent reduction in sodium after the nuggets were changed from dark meat to white meat.
The chain said it will work toward additional reductions in sugars, saturated fat and calories by 2020 and has hired an unidentified third-party organization to report on its progress.
“This seems like good leadership in the industry and one that should help the brand maintain its leading position with young families,” said David Palmer, an analyst with UBS. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant industry consultancy in Chicago, said that although McDonald’s is clearly trying to strike a balance between nutrition and cravings, “consumers are going to chose what they want.” And that usually means something fried.
Tristano said the estimate that 11 percent of customers ordering Apple Dippers for their children “sounds high.”
“I think you’re going to get a good reaction from kids who like apples,” Tristano said of the new meal. “But ultimately I think we’re going to see a good bit of apples wasted from kids who just refuse to eat them.”