Commentary

Heaps Of Praise For McDonald's Health Initiatives

“Would you like some milk and kiwi on a stick with that?” 

If you are one of the average persons who purportedly frequent McDonald’s about three times a month, get ready to hear queries such as that when you treat the little shavers to a Happy Meal. 

President and CEO Don Thompson announced yesterday that the fast-food chain was partnering with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, “to increase customers’ access to fruit and vegetables and help families and children to make informed choices in keeping with balanced lifestyles.”

McDonald’s also committed to giving customers a choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable — options depend on the market — instead of french fries in its value meals. Other initiatives, which were unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York, include: 

  • Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising;
  • Utilize Happy Meal and other packaging innovations and designs to generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/reduced-fat dairy, or water options for kids;
  • Dedicate Happy Meal box or bag panels to communicate a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message;
  • Ensure 100% of all advertising directed to children to include a fun nutrition or children’s well-being message.

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“We think we can influence the purchase of fruits and veggies,” Thompson tells the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon. “We have a leadership role and we can be part of a solution. The average person eats at McDonald's three times a month.”

“People can't make healthy choices for their kids if healthy choices aren't available,” Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, tells Jargon. “No government agency or non-profit has the marketing capacity that McDonald's has to make fruits and vegetables an exciting experience for young people.”

The New York Times’ Stephanie Strom reports that McDonald’s intends to “use its arsenal of marketing tools, from menu boards to national television advertising campaigns, to help customers understand the nutritional choices available.”

The company has, of course, been offering healthier choices for years to “try to address concerns raised … by nutritionists and other critics about the fat and caloric content of its food,” as Strom reports, even as competitors such as Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King also appeal to the rational sections of our brains that fight the good fight with our taste buds over the likes of salt and sugar. McDonald’s introduced a Favorites Under 400 Calories menu last year and this year started selling egg-white McMuffins, Bloomberg’s Leslie Patton points out.

The conventional wisdom is that people say they want to eat healthier but they don’t. But a Hudson Institute study we reported on earlier this year found that growth at fast-food and sit-down restaurant chains is coming primarily from offering lower-calorie chow and drinks. 

“We’ve seen voluntary agreements with industry have profound impact — including our work with the beverage industry to limit the amount of calories shipped to schools,” former president Bill Clinton said in a statement released yesterday. “Those agreements resulted in a 90% reduction in total beverage calories shipped to schools between 2004 and 2010. If we want to curb the catastrophic economic and health implications of obesity across the world, we need more companies to follow McDonald’s lead and to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes.”

Indeed, the initiative is not restricted to the U.S.; it will encompass 20 markets that represent more than 85% of global sales, the company says. The other markets are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China (including Hong Kong), France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

A third-party organization will verify progress on the commitment “in a clear and transparent manner as part of the agreement,” according to McDonald’s, which said that it would be implemented in 30-50% of the 20 major markets within three years and 100% by 2020.

Even the usually skeptical Center for Science in the Public Interest seemed heartened by the news, leading its statement with “Ronald McDonald's slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today,” before pointing out what it and its competitors should do to make their meals less harmful to consumers.

No one, including CEO Thompson in an interview withUSA Today’s Bruce Horovitz, is claiming the announcement is “the end-all solution.” Without going into specifics, Thompson says that “more options are on tap,” Horovitz writes.

“We want to have kids consume more fruits and veggies around the world, and we want to make access easier,” Thompson avers.

And who could argue with that?

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