McDonald’s raises the bar for children’s food with new nutritional standards for Happy Meals

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

McDonald’s raises the bar for children’s food with new nutritional standards for Happy Meals
McDonald’s aggressive goals to improve the nutrition and limit the calories of its Happy Meals “has tremendous potential to improve child nutrition” and raises the bar for kid’s meals at by fast casual restaurants and CPG manufacturers, according to a top executive at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

“For the first time ever, across the entire world, there are nutrition criteria for the Happy Meals related to calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat,”​ Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, told attendees at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, DC, this month.

While McDonald’s has several years to meet the new criteria, it is “already moving very quickly. So, by next month 100% of the Happy Meal combinations in the US will meet the criteria of 600 or fewer calories, which is very consistent with what public health advocates would like to see,”​ he said.

“The consequence of this commitment was the cheeseburger had to be taken off the Happy Meal menu. They are cutting in half the portion size of French fries with the six piece McNuggets, which is one of the most popular entrees for kids. They are reformulating the chocolate milk so it has fewer calories and less sugar, and for the first time, they are going to offer bottled water as a beverage item,” ​he explained.

In addition, McDonald’s committed to simplifying ingredients, increasing transparency of the nutrition information, responsibly marketing to their children and, “what I think is the most exciting, is they are publically committing to use their marketing genius to promote healthier choices,”​ Wechsler said.

McDonald’s isn’t stopping at making the changes. It also is tracking uptake by consumers to verify if consumers are following the company’s lead and understand how the changes are heathier, he added.

The new commitments build on changes that McDonald’s made with help from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation several years ago, including a commitment to increase access to fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and water, Silvia Lagnado, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s told conference attendees.

“In the process of saying how do we do these things in each market, we have leveraged what is right for the customer in the market and what is possible in the supply chain in that market,”​ she said. “For example, we have apple slices on the US menu, pineapple slices in Europe, melon in Spain, cherry tomatoes in Brazil, flower shaped little carrot sticks in Switzerland and corn cups in Asia.”

The reach of McDonald’s leadership

At the same time, McDonald’s removed soda from its menu boards – a change that inspired other fast food chains to follow suit and shows the potential larger impact of the most recent changes as well, Wechsler said.

“The 2013 commitment really demonstrate McDonald’s leadership. McDonald’s is a giant in fast food and when they took the bold step of taking soda off the Happy Meal menu, guess what? One by one over the next year, most of the other leading fast food companies did the same thing,”​ he said.

“The other thing it demonstrated was the power of scale. When McDonald’s says they’re going to introduce new kid-friendly fruit and vegetable items, this sounds lovely. That is terrific. But you have to realize the implications of that. Our evaluation report from 2016 showed that the first new fruit offering that they put out, the Little Cuties Clementines … when they were available, McDonald’s delivered 180 Cuties per minute,”​ he added.

Nudging change

Lagnado said she believes McDonald’s can sell even more produce through gentle prompts. For example, she said at kiosks when parents order a Happy Meal without ordering fruit the company asks if they would like to add an order of fruit for a low price, and as a result the brand has “seen phenomenal results and uptake.”

The company also will encourage children to select healthier options when order Happy Meals by making a game in which children can scan the packaging of the more nutritious options and get extra energy for their characters in a virtual reality game, she said.

“These are just a few of the ways we are nudging the pickup rate for the better-for-you items. And, we will keep going,”​ she promised.

 Editor’s Note: Learn more about how children’s menus are evolving and other changes in food service to help kids eat healthier at FoodNavigator-USA’s Summit: Food For Kids! this fall in Chicago. Get all the details and register HERE​.

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