Tuesday, July 26, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama's Lukewarm Praise For McDonald's Nutrition Upgrades

Kids meals will automatically include a fruit/vegetable, alongside the French fries...
McDonald's Corporation this morning announced its "Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices," which will include a revamp of kids' Happy Meals to automatically include a small serving of fresh produce and a smaller portion of French fries. There are long-term plans to trim fat and calories from menu items, and to develop a nutrition education project. First Lady Michelle Obama issued a statement in response, calling the plan "positive steps" toward her Let's Move! goal of ending childhood obesity. But otherwise Mrs. Obama's response was tepid; she adopted a wait-and-see attitude, saying she "looks forward" to the company's "efforts in the years to come."

The company has put a toe into the Let's Move! pool, but the announced changes were neither broad enough nor deep enough to warrant Mrs. Obama inviting executives to the White House for their announcement, as she did last week when she joined executives from some of America's largest grocery chains for an East Room announcement of their commitments to open stores in food deserts. Instead, McDonald's USA president Jan Fields unveiled the corporate plans during a video appearance on ABC's Good Morning America.

Still, the plan warranted the First Lady's notice:

“McDonald’s is making continued progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals," Mrs. Obama said. "I’ve always said that everyone has a role to play in making America healthier, and these are positive steps toward the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity."

“The commitments we’re announcing today will guide the future evolution of our menu and marketing," Fields said on the company's website.

"McDonald’s has continued to evolve its menu, and I look forward to hearing about the progress of today’s commitments, as well as efforts in the years to come," Mrs. Obama said.

Fruit and fries...a long time frame
The Illinois-based McDonald's serves millions of meals daily at 14,000 restaurants across the US.

"What we're doing is offering fruit to every child that comes into a McDonald's, so it is an automatic," Fields said. The automatic could also be a vegetable, such as carrots, GMA noted.

The First Lady last year urged the restaurant industry to consider the "automatic" healthy side approach to children's meals during a speech to the National Restaurant Association, and she also encouraged better marketing and smaller portions.

McDonald's "automatic" fruit or vegetable--about a quarter to a half cup serving--will still be accompanied by a serving of French fries, and this will be smaller than it is currently. To make room for the fruit, French fry holders in Happy Meals will now contain 1.1 ounces of potatoes, down from 2.4 ounces. Parents can skip the fries altogether and double up on the fruit or vegetable side, but this must be requested, Fields said.

The revamped Happy Meal will thus have about 20% fewer calories and less fat, thanks to the inclusion of produce and the smaller portion of fries, the company says, in a bit of magic nutrition math. It will be available in some markets in September, and nationwide by 2012. Fries will still be fried, and the sodium and fat content of the kids hamburgers and cheeseburgers remains unchanged.

But the company also pledged to reduce sugars, saturated fats and calories in its products through "varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations" by 2020, without giving details of what this actually entails. By 2015, the company pledged to reduce sodium by 15%. Read the full details here.

Mrs. Obama, Let's Move! and the restaurant industry...
William Whitman, Vice President of Communications for McDonald's, was on hand for Mrs. Obama's address last year to the National Restaurant Association, and he was less than enthusiastic about the First Lady's suggestions. Whitman told Obama Foodorama that he "applauds Mrs. Obama's leadership," but pointed out that the Golden Arches had plenty of healthy options on its menu, including "premium" salads and "apple dippers," which are slices of apples served with a caramel sauce.

"I think the premise that there are good foods and bad foods is misguided," Whitman said.

But McDonald's has now changed its tune. For years, critics have assaulted everything from the toys the company includes in Happy Meals to the way it markets its food to children, to calorie counts and nutritional quality. GMA pointed out that a study last year by the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale University found that not one of the Happy Meal's possible food combinations met the standards for good nutrition for children under age 12, with the highest calorie option adding up to 700 calories, and many containing high levels of sodium and fat.

Fields assured her interviewer that it's a new day under the Golden Arches.

McDonald's estimates the announced changes to the Happy Meal will save an estimated 49 billion calories in American kids' diets annually. The company also announced that Fields and other executives will go on a "listening tour" in August to hear suggestions from parents and nutrition experts, and it will also launch an online forum for parents. McDonald’s also pledged to "promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle 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, the company said, and launch a mobile app focused on nutrition information. It will happily double as an on-phone advertisement to dine at McDonald's, of course.

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; GMA video. Updated.

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