by Marion Nestle

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Aug 7 2011

McDonald’s Happy Meals healthier?

 My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column is in answer to a question about the deeper meaning of the fuss over McDonald’s “healthier” Happy Meals.

Q: Wouldn’t it be the best form of activism to encourage people to buy McDonald’s slightly-less-bad-for-you Happy Meals? If the new formulation flops, do you really think McDonald’s will take more baby steps in the same direction? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good?

A: The question, for those of you ignoring national media, refers to McDonald’s announcement that it plans to restructure its Happy Meals for kids by adding fruit, downsizing the fries and reducing calories by 20 percent and sodium by 15 percent.

Skeptic that I am, I took a look at McDonald’s lengthy press release. The company does not claim to be making healthier changes. It says it is offering customers improved nutrition choices. This is something quite different.

At issue is the default meal – the one that gets handed to you without your having to ask for anything. Plenty of research shows that although customers can request other options, most take the default. So the default is what counts.

McDonald’s says its new default will include a quarter cup of apple slices (how many slices can that be?), less sodium and 1 ounce less of french fries (thereby reducing calories and fat). These are steps in the right direction, but tiny baby steps.

The rest is up to you: hamburger, cheeseburger or McNuggets.

As for beverage, the press release says, “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

This sounds great. “Automatically” makes me think the default Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk. No such luck. It’s up to you to choose from soda or low-fat chocolate or plain milk.

Want something healthy? You have to ask for it. And the meal still comes with a toy, although the meal isn’t healthy enough to qualify for a toy under the San Francisco’s nutrition standards, which are scheduled to go into effect in December.

The McNuggets meal meets the San Francisco standard for sodium, overall calories and for saturated fat – if you choose low-fat white milk. It fails the other criteria. Fat provides about 40 percent of the calories (the standard is 35 percent), and fruit misses the mark by 50 percent. The hamburger and cheeseburger meals fare worse. And even if french fries count as a vegetable, they don’t reach the three-quarter-cup standard. Sodas, of course, have too much sugar.

No toy for you, San Francisco kids.

So let’s get back to the underlying question: Isn’t perfect the enemy of the good? Aren’t baby steps like these in the right direction and, therefore, deserving of support?

I don’t think so. McDonald’s proposed changes are a reason to ask a different question: Is a better-for-you Happy Meal a good choice? Wouldn’t your child be better off eating something healthy, not just slightly healthier?

Couldn’t McDonald’s, the largest fast-food maker in the world, come up with something genuinely healthy that also tastes good?

“Better for you” is a marketing ploy, and McDonald’s must need help. Although its annual sales are $24 billion from its 14,000 outlets in the United States, Happy Meals have not been doing well.

Business analysts attribute declining sales since 2003 to the unsophisticated toys. Toys are the only reason kids want Happy Meals, but more parents are ordering adult meals and splitting them with the kids. But what if Happy Meals appear healthier?

Let’s be clear: McDonald’s is not a social service agency. It is a business. Its business interests come first. This means selling more food to more people more often, viewing food choice exclusively as a matter of personal responsibility and pretending that the company’s $1.3 billion annual marketing expenditure has no effect on consumer choice.

I suspect McDonald’s actions are attempts to appease Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and perhaps to attract health-minded families to its outlets.

But surely the changes are also part of a calculated public relations effort to discourage other communities from enacting nutrition standards like those in San Francisco.

What McDonald’s actions make clear is the need for federal action to make it easier for people to make healthier choices for their kids. This means putting some curbs on marketing below-standard foods to kids and insisting that default kids menus be healthy.

If McDonald’s were serious about promoting kids’ health, it would offer default Happy Meals that meet San Francisco’s nutrition standards and advertise them to the hilt. Until the company does that, I’m reserving applause.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Jul 27 2011

Let’s talk about McDonald’s Happy Meals changes

McDonald’s sent out a press release yesterday to announce “healthier” changes to its Happy Meals.

Healthier?  Not quite.  The company is announcing a “Commitment to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” [my emphasis].

The comprehensive plan aims to help customers — especially families and children — make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.

Menu changes underway include the addition of more nutritionally-balanced choices that meet McDonald’s reputation for great taste and affordability, along with an increased focus on providing nutrition information that enable customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.

McDonald’s says that by the end of this year it will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.  It will:

  • Automatically include both produce (apple slices, a quarter cup or half serving)
  • Automatically include a new smaller size French fries (1.1 ounces)
  • Automatically reduce the sodium by 15% or more

I emphasize “automatically” because it means the default. If you order a Happy Meal, that’s what you get.   Research shows that most people stick with the default. If the default is a healthy meal, kids have a better chance of getting one.

Everything else is your choice:

  • Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.
  • “Beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low fat white milk”

The press release says: “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

Doesn’t that sound like the Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk?

Wrong.

The meal comes with a choice of a soda or low-fat chocolate or white milk.  Soda remains an option.  And the meal still comes with a toy.

So all the fuss—and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this—is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium.

The New York Times’ summary:

These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.

So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, business matters may also be at stake. Happy Meals account for less than 10% of McDonald’s U.S. sales, but sales have been declining since 2003 for a funny reason: “gadgets for children have become more sophisticated and the toys less desirable.”  Of course the only reason kids want Happy Meals is for the toys.

But kids have to eat.  Instead of Happy Meals, parents have been

ordering adult-size items off the ‘dollar menu’ and splitting them between two children rather than buying two kids’ meals.

Kids’ meal orders at fast-food restaurants have declined 15% since 2006 to just under a billion, while dollar-menu items ordered by or for kids have increased 29% in the last five years.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a restaurant consultant who comments that

Making [apples] a forced decision is a pretty unusual thing for a restaurant to do…If they can get to a place where parents associate them with healthy offerings in a world of increasing fast casual options that are perceived as healthier, that will be good for them.

But will it? McDonald’s tested healthier meals with disappointing results.  So this has to be about McDonald’s trying to appear to do something to promote kids’ health. In reality, it can’t. McDonald’s is a business and its business interests come first.

If McDonald’s were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars.  When the company does that, I’ll cheer.  Until then, as I told the Times, “I’m not impressed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 8 2011

Happy birthday Let’s Move!

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is one year old and people are asking me whether it has accomplished anything.  I think it has.

  • It has brought childhood obesity to public attention, as never before.
  • The choice of action areas—fixing school food and getting supermarkets into inner city food deserts—makes excellent sense.  Both are doable and both can make a real difference to kids and their families.
  • Encouraging the makers of packaged foods to reduce salt and sugar and to stop blatant marketing to kids brings attention to their worst practices.
  • And now, according to the New York Times, Mrs. Obama is talking to restaurant companies about serving healthier foods, especially to kids.

This last one warms my heart.  Six or seven years ago, I was invited to speak to a small group of owners of restaurant chains, Applebee’s, Darden’s, and the like.  I went with a three-point agenda:

  • Make healthy kids’ meals the default.
  • Give a price break to encourage people to order smaller portions (charge 70% for a 50% portion, for example).
  • And stop funding the Center for Consumer Freedom (an aggressive PR firm that does the dirty work for restaurant and other industries).

The response?  Ballistic. “What are you trying to do, put us out of business?”

Well, times have changed.  Some of those chains are actually doing some of these things.  And now the First Lady is urging them to do the first two points on my agenda, at least.

Mrs. Obama has no legislated power.  She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.  I’m glad she’s using it to promote action on childhood obesity, challenging as that is.

Happy birthday!

Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.

Dec 2 2010

The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

I haven’t seem much comment on what’s happening with Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, a suit to prevent planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets because USDA allowed them to be grown without filing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This is kind of after-the-fact because Monsanto’s GM sugar beets have been planted widely for the last five years and now comprise 95% of the sugar beet crop in the U.S.

As the Center for Food Safety explains,

The court outlined the many ways in which GE sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers, noting that containment efforts were insufficient and past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, Judge White noted, “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GE sugar beets and non-GE crops. He continued, “the legality of Defendants’ conduct does not even appear to be a close question,” noting that the government and Monsanto tried to circumvent his prior ruling, which made GE sugar beets illegal.

No surprise, Monsanto is appealing and is likely to be joined by the government in the appeal.  Food Safety News quotes a Monsanto spokesman:

With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings, and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Snively, general counsel for Monsanto, in a news release….The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops…We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

Food Safety News also reports that a Washington state apple grower has petitioned USDA to allow it to market a GM apple engineered to resist browning.

But wait.  I’m confused.  Isn’t the FDA supposed to be the agency that approves the planting of GM foods?

This sent me right to the FDA site that summarizes GM varieties that are permitted to be planted (“completed consultations“).  I see papayas and cantaloupe on the list, but not a single apple variety.

How can this company market a GM variety of apples if the FDA hasn’t approved it?  Can anyone explain what’s going on here?  Thanks.

Update December 3:  A judge in San Francisco ordered GM sugar beets planted on 256 acres to be destroyed.  USDA is appealing.  And now everyone is worried about sugar shortages.  Oh dear.

Oct 29 2010

Bisphenol A disappearing from packaging

According to FoodProductionDaily.com, a new report says that consumer concerns are driving companies to take bisphenol A (BPA) out of their packaging.  BPA, you may recall from previous posts, is an estrogen disrupting chemical in plastic containers and the linings of food cans.  Although the harm it causes is not well established, many groups have been working to get rid of it on the theory that estrogen disruption is not a good idea.

The USA Today account says

Some retailers say they’re working hard to go BPA-free. Last year, only 7% of companies had timeliness to phase out BPA. This year, 32% have set timelines, the report says. Most large baby bottle makers already have stopped using BPA.

It quotes the author of the report as saying that consumers are “voting with their shopping carts….This is definitely a story about consumers having a lot of power with the big companies….Investors and shareholders have a big impact, as well.”

In other words, getting BPA out of plastics is good for business.

And sometimes, consumer choice really works.

Oct 25 2010

Happy Halloween: UNICEF-Canada partners with Cadbury

A Canadian reader, Professor Amir Attaran of the Law and Medicine Faculties at the University of Ottawa, has just discovered UNICEF-Canada’s Halloween partnership with Cadbury:

I was not made cheery this morning when at the grocery store, I found UNICEF’s name and logo plastered all over the packages of Halloween candy.  On closer investigation, UNICEF Canada have struck a three-year partnership with Cadbury (this is the final year) where UNICEF lends its name and logo to advertising some 4 million packages of Cadbury candies each year.  In exchange, Cadbury donated some money ($500k) to UNICEF for schools in Africa.

The UNICEF Cadbury “Schoolhouse Project” (now closed) collected donations from Canadian communities for children in Africa.

UNICEF continues to collect funds for such purposes and has declared October 31 as National UNICEF Day.

Remember UNICEF’s orange trick-or-treat boxes? They helped make October 31 National UNICEF Day – and taught scores of Canadians that they can make a vital difference around the world. Today, it’s easier than ever to have an impact on the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.

But UNICEF-Canada is aggressively seeking donations from corporate partners, apparently with little regard for what they sell.

Invest in the world’s children today to make a world of difference tomorrow. On behalf of UNICEF Canada, we invite you to involve your organization in a rewarding partnership and unique business opportunity. UNICEF Canada designs exclusive customized initiatives that achieve real, measurable business results while meeting your humanitarian goals.

Enhance your brand, drive sales, increase revenues. UNICEF delivers….We have built direct relationships with governments, businesses and community leaders in every jurisdiction where UNICEF is present.

No other aid organization engenders greater trust. None has greater impact.

Make us part of your business strategy and join us in building a better world for children. For your bottom line, for the sake of our children and for the future of our world, there is no better investment.

As I keep saying, you cannot make this stuff up.

Candy?  Or, UNICEF’s other Canadian partners such as Pizza Nova?

I know the argument: It’s Halloween and kids will eat candy anyway, so why not make some money from it.  This is the same argument used to promote sales of junk food in vending machines in U.S. schools.

But should UNICEF-Canada be doing this?  Canadians: how about doing some serious talking about this embarrassing partnership.

Addition, October 26:  Here’s what Cadbury gets for its $500,000 donation:

A cornerstone of the partnership is the dedication of significant space on approximately 4.3 million boxes and bags of mini-treats each year to raise awareness about UNICEF and the Schools for Africa programme. Cadbury Adams will also use point of purchase displays, flyers, advertising and the Web to promote the programme and its toll-free number.

Sep 26 2010

Forget previous post: that’s not what happened

Jessica Leighton, the FDA senior science advisory whose speech was quoted in Food Chemical News (I wrote about this yesterday) writes to tell me that she has been badly misquoted about the FDA’s plans for food labels.

The reporter, she says, appears to have mixed up a variety of talks or questions from the audience to the panel.

I said nothing about caffeine or “natural.”  I don’t remember mentioning the percent of key ingredients in parentheses after the ingredient name either.    I also said we are looking into added sugars but did not say we are doing anything about them.

I am taking her word for it and have taken down the post.  Apologies to all.

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