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 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.