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    3 Reasons Why the New Happy Meal is Still Problematic

    McDonald’s announcement yesterday morning regarding upcoming menu reformulations and a Happy Meal makeover had my public health and nutrition colleagues buzzing, analyzing, and tweeting.

    The gist?

    “The new Happy Meal will automatically include both produce (apple slices, a quarter cup or half serving) and a new smaller size French fries (1.1 ounces) along with the choice of a Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets, and choice of beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low fat white milk. For those customers who prefer a side choice of apples only, two bags of apple slices will be available, upon request.”

    The press release also notes, by the way, that “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal®“. In other words, a child could still have a hamburger, fries, and chocolate milk as a meal (more on that later).

    Many public figures — including First Lady Michelle Obama and members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — have come out in public support of these PR opportunities developments.

    I can’t deny that reducing the amount of french fries in a Happy Meal is good; in no way is that a change with negative consequences. Neither, for example, is the addition of sliced apples to the Happy Meal (regardless of whether they get eaten or not).  What deeply troubles me, though, is that all this back-patting ignores that a Happy Meal — even with its new look — is still something that should be a “rarely” food at best.  My concerns:

    1) Where are the nutrients?: We have gotten so caught up in the reduction of undesirable nutrients (trans fats, added sugars, sodium) that we often forget the presence of other nutrients (magnesium, potassium, fiber) is just as important. These meals may be lower in sodium, but blood pressure regulation isn’t simply about reducing sodium — it is also about increasing intake of minerals, most of which are obliterated the more a food is processed.  Foods will continue to be deep fried (and in omega-6-loaded oils, no less). In what way is adding a container of chocolate milk to a meal of nuggets and french fries a positive change? If that was served at school on a weekly basis to a six-year-old, most of us would be outraged (and rightfully so!).

    2) Sugar is still front and center: According to some sources, soda will continue to be the default option; unflavored and chocolate milk can also be requested. [UPDATE: Thank you to Michele Simon for pointing out that it is not yet clear if soda is the default option; not surprisingly, the specifics aspect of the new Happy Meal appear vague at the moment. It seems clerks will have to ask customers what beverage they want in a Happy Meal.  Why not at least make unflavored milk the default?]. The average American child consumes too much sugar as it is; the fact that chocolate milk has protein and calcium does not take away from the fact that it contains a significant amount of added sugar.

    3) Marketing & messages: One of the pillars of this new launch is that “In 2012, McDonald’s will also raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives. The company will promote nutrition messages in 100 percent of its national kids’ communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging. McDonald’s will also provide funding for grass roots community nutrition awareness programs.

    As my colleague Michele Simon brilliantly pointed out yesterday on her Twitter feed, “Dear @McDonalds: it’s not your job to educate kids about nutrition. It is your job to stop the predatory marketing.” This new, “sensitive” McDonald’s got so caught up congratulating itself on things like reducing sodium in meals by fifteen percent in four years that it didn’t think to bring up the fact that the inclusion of a toy in every Happy Meal is a huge marketing tactic.

    Additionally, it disturbs me that McDonald’s will be in charge of grass-roots community nutrition programs. What will they teach? That beef is a good source of B vitamins and chocolate milk a great source of calcium?  Another great point stated by Canadian obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff: “We’re not going to “solve” childhood obesity with healthier Happy Meals. Giving parents more reason to go may well backfire.  We need to cook.”

    There is nothing wrong with acknowledging when the food industry makes seemingly positive changes. I am disheartened, however, when influential public figures and my fellow nutrition colleagues fawn over such developments. I would prefer a more grounded approach, where we recognize that while Happy Meals will soon be “slightly less unhealthy”, they are still far from a healthful food. It isn’t about demanding perfection or being out of touch; it’s a simple matter of telling the American public what it deserves to hear: truth.



    1. Ken Leebow said on July 27th, 2011

      Even a bird-brain knows to stay away from McDonald’s … http://bit.ly/fDDUte

    2. Kelly F said on July 27th, 2011

      I don’t think McDonald’s understands that french fries don’t count as a vegetable…

    3. Andrew @ Eating Rulres said on July 27th, 2011

      Well said, Andy. A smaller serving of junk food is still junk food.

      It would be far better if they didn’t change happy meals at all but instead taught parents and kids that happy meals (or any visit to McDonald’s, really) should be rare indulgence.

      Having said that, they’re eliminating the caramel sauce that came with the “Apple Dippers,” so that does change the apple slices option from an unhealthful one to a healthful one!

    4. Rhonda said on July 27th, 2011

      It’s not McDonald’s fault that our kids are fat! How long is it going take to realize this? Can we please stop wasting money and make parents take some responsibility?

    5. Christina @ Spoonfed said on July 27th, 2011

      Right on, Andy. I haven’t had time to weigh in on this except for brief Facebook postings, but you wrote what I’m thinking. So I’ll forward your excellent post around instead.

      One thing that jumped out at me yesterday was mention of this “cup” for “soda or water.” That’s a perfect example of how McDonald’s is deceptive. If the default is a cup on a tray, 99% of those cups will be filled with soda. And McDonald’s knows that. Yet McDonald’s will claim that it’s offering a “choice” between healthful and unhealthful, and that it’s up to parents to decide. And that is just BS. McDonald’s wants people to (falsely) feel better about eating there (preferably more often) by preaching “choice” and “moderation.” It’s a marketing stunt, pure and simple.

      The “personal responsibility” argument always gets trotted out in times like this. But, as I wrote on the Spoonfed FB page yesterday, here’s why it’s faulty: Yes, absolutely, people can choose not to eat at McDonald’s (we choose not to). But McDonald’s shouldn’t claim there are healthy choices on the menu when there aren’t. That’s just false advertising. The other problem is that McDonald’s controls such a disproportionate share of the food market that it has a huge influence on the way food is grown and processed even outside of its own restaurants. And that calls for some serious accountability. We all need to be responsible consumers, for sure. But that doesn’t mean we should let corporations off the hook entirely. It’s not an either-or thing, you know?

      Finally, the idea that McDonald’s plans to provide nutrition education is ludicrous. But McD’s is already in the (re)education business. I wrote about that here: http://spoonfedblog.net/2010/11/05/forget-happy-meal-toys-lets-ban-mceducation/

      Keep up the great work!

    6. Lauren Slayton said on July 27th, 2011

      I can wear four inch heels but I’m still 5’2″. This is like congratulating a criminal for killing less. Yes, less fries better than more but c’mon.

    7. Matt said on July 27th, 2011

      Great post…very informative…I am going to pass this around…thanks for the info!

    8. Ironica said on July 27th, 2011

      “It’s not McDonald’s fault that our kids are fat! How long is it going take to realize this? Can we please stop wasting money and make parents take some responsibility?”

      Responsibility… for what? For seeing through McDonald’s false advertising? For realizing that the USDA is responsible both for setting nutrition guidelines *and* subsidizing agricultural commodities? For figuring out on their own that their pediatrician who recommended X brand of formula has regular visits from a very informative and generous representative of the company that makes that formula, and never gets visited by lactation consultants in the same way?

      Parents do their very best, but at some point, we’ve got to realize that they need the *tools* to succeed. We are constantly bombarded with advertising that is explicitly designed to suppress our information and decisions about what is good for us, and make us do things that we know are bad for us. But people are so very sure that advertising doesn’t influence *them*. I was one of those people, until we got rid of commercial television altogether… and the next time I saw such advertising (months later), I was *appalled* at what I used to take for granted as a normal message.

      Let’s not forget, an individual parent who says “no” to McDonald’s or any other junky treat totally devoid of nutrition has to deal with the rest of society, which quite often says “Meanie! Let kids be kids!” Be prepared to stick up for the parents who feed their kids right; talk back to the grandparents and aunties and uncles and others who try to guilt parents into giving in, or who even *go behind their back* to give this junk to kids.

    9. BrettFutureRD said on July 27th, 2011

      Believe me, you couldn’t pay me to eat at McDonalds. Aside from the plethora of unethical practices, their food tastes like shit. But in the interest of playing devils advocate in order to gain more perspective, I would ask why does McDonalds need to sell anything but greasy burgers and fat laden fries? The nit picking over how nutrient dense or healthy a kids meal is to me, irrelevant. Rather than pressuring McDonalds to be something it doesn’t want to be (which is clear with this revamped kids meal) why can’t we push for laws that regulate advertising more? Being mad at McDonalds for being deceptive about creating a kids menu that is being marketed as healthy that really isn’t is like being mad at a cockroach for being a cockroach.It’s just doing whatever it can to survive. The problem is, that our country’s loose laws on advertising allows companies like McDonalds to do and say just about anything to fatten their bottom line. It’s the American way unfortunately. I’m not surprised at all that McDonald’s is pulling a stunt like this, I am surprised it’s legal for them to market it to kids and parents as healthy.

    10. Andy Bellatti said on July 27th, 2011


      I wouldn’t characterize this as “nit picking” over how nutrient dense a kids’ meal is, but rather the simple fact that despite all these PR tactics, we are still dealing with the exact same food. And, even more disturbingly, in many circles this miniscule change has been praised (publicly, no less) as some sort of golden public health solution (hence my motivation to write this post).

      As you know, I am very much concerned with food policy & advertising issues. Michele Simon did a great job of covering that aspect in her blog today: http://www.appetiteforprofit.com/2011/07/27/who-put-mcdonalds-in-charge-of-kids-health/

    11. nora said on July 29th, 2011

      The publicity and fawning is gross, but it’s a good example of your point from the other day about how the nutrition industrial complex’s “be realistic” meme leads to absolutely no meaningful change.

      The problem with expecting parents to take responsibility is that it takes way more energy than most of us have to buck unhealthy societal norms. You know how much money I’ve spent at McDonald’s since becoming a parent almost 20 years ago? Probably less than $5. But explaining why to the kids, their grandparents, their friends, their friends’ parents, finding someplace non-disgusting for a quick snack on a busy day, etc etc X twenty years is time and energy I’d prefer to spend elsewhere.

      The fast food industry’s marketing budgets and governmental support are overwhelming.

    12. Kiersti said on July 29th, 2011

      “In what way is adding a container of chocolate milk to a meal of nuggets and french fries a positive change? If that was served at school on a weekly basis to a six-year-old, most of us would be outraged (and rightfully so!).”

      Andy – my kids school does provide lowfat choc milk with meals and while I work with my kids to avoid that and chose better…when my 5 and 7 year olds are at school away from mom’s eyes they are going to go for the chocolate every time! Much to my frustration. But can we really expect our 5 and 7 year olds to make the right impulse choice? I really just wish they didn’t offer the choco milk at the meal…

    13. Andy Bellatti said on July 29th, 2011


      All the more reason to pursue policy and regulations (i.e.: “do not offer flavored milks at school”).

    14. Denise said on July 31st, 2011

      I think if anyone thinks eating at McDonald’s is a choice for a meal, then they’re getting what they pay for. My family never eats fast food. It’s just not healthy so why pretend you’re getting a healthy meal when eating there?

    15. Matt said on August 24th, 2011

      I disagree, I dont think McDonalds is that bad of a choice at all. The key is to eat there in moderation and dont get the biggie sizes. I have 4 kids and let me tell you, I need to buy stock in McDonalds. They maybe get it twice a week and it is a huge timesaver. I get to decide, as the parent, what and how much they can have when we go there. Parenting is what it really comes down to.

    16. Amy said on August 29th, 2011

      The meals McDonalds serves are just not healthy – plain and simple. Refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, way too much sodium – don’t get me wrong I’ll still eat there occasionally – convenient, yes; healthy, no.

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