by Marion Nestle
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

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

  • They reduced calories but increased the sugar. The deep fry oil can contain up to 24% trans fat at the end of life cycle, but contains very little to start with, so a french fry in new oil may be tested and show 0 trans fats, but when the oil is old, 24 percent of the oil is trans fat, and the oil starts to make the fries too brown. Oh well, who cares, if they eat fries. Organic Chemistry is boring but the knowledge shows the marketing caca el toro.

  • Let’s not forget the role of the parents. The ultimate default is showing up at McD’s, or deciding to pay for a cheese burger–or not. I’m no lover of McD’s, but parents need to learn to share (own?) responsibility for their young ones’ health.

  • The new Happy Meal is “better for you” only in the sense that it is “better for you” to be hit in the head with a brick only twice rather than three times. Advertising to children should be against the law.

  • Is it too simple or am I just too naive to say that parent’s need to be the ones to just say no when it comes to all fast food? Sure, pervasive fast food marketing has influence, and it’s challenging to say no to our kids, but that’s what we must do. McDonald’s and other fast food must be treated as special occasion food only. As for McDonald’s efforts here, it’s strictly done to avoid further scrutiny or legislative action. It’s also a decent PR move when major media shows headlines depicting the new meals as “Healthy”.

  • MargaretRC

    We are becoming more and more of an enabling society with more and more regulation that takes all the decision making away from the individual, and it’s not for the better. Parents are the one’s who should be making decisions as to what they want to feed their kids. My children are grown up now, but when they were little, I was in charge. I made the decisions as to whether we went to a fast food place or not and which one. I was never under the delusion that it was a healthy option–it was a treat. That was as it should be. Parenting isn’t easy, nor should it be, but I would not want any government making decisions for me and my family. Just make the information I need accessible and leave the rest to me!

  • I heard the apple slices taste like chemical poison –??? Then, when no one eats it MCD can say — we tried.

  • MargaretRC

    Why do treats have to be unhealthy crap?? Why not blackberries, watermelon, frozen bananas whipped in a blender, unsalted almonds from the bins, strawberries – fresh cucumbers — why teach your children grease, salt and dead flesh is a “treat”?

    If parents are making such good decisions why the obesity problem?

    Bad parenting is why I want govt. intervention. You think it is a parent’s right to ruin children’s mind and stomach with bad information. But as a former victim, I think children have their own right to a healthy body and a good start toward normal weight which supersedes your power over children desires.

  • Leila Mae

    I, for one, want government and NYU making all of the most basic decisions for me and my family. If Nestle says I should hate McDonalds I will. God, I wish I lived in San Francisco.

  • suzieQ

    Damn McDonalds for putting fruit in kids’s meals. No excuse for such behavior.

  • If you want something healthy, don’t eat at McDonald’s.

  • Charlie L

    Professor Nestle: Thank you so much for devoting your SF Chronicle to answer thoughtfully the question(s) I posed to you on this blog when you first discussed this recent, upcoming change by McDonald’s to their Happy Meal.

  • Suzanne_Garrett

    Transparent as Mudd.

  • I believe we need to target parents. I think it’s also important to be savvy to marketers and fast food establishments, but to me the onus is on parents making the right decisions for their kids. Now we could talk about the lack of education/support our country’s parents get in the department of parenting and nutrition…hard to make good decisions for your kids if you haven’t had an education that includes home ec, parenting skills, and basic nutrition.

  • Joe

    Why is your default position more frderal regulation? Since when did the government getting involved make things better for anyoone?

  • Jon

    Pro: Replacing fries with apples
    Con: They still have the poor-quality meat and SODAS! Nothing can convince me sodas are healthy. Also, except for the apples (assuming you don’t dip them in caramel) and diet soda, just about everything on the menu has some added sugar.

    Joe: People do have a right to know the approximate nutrient content, as well as the ingredients. This is for several reasons. If nothing else, people with the disease phenylketonuria have to watch their protein intake, diabetics have to watch carbohydrate intake, and people with food allergies, such as celiac disease, need to know if they’re eating that particular protein. (In the case of celiac disease, gluten from wheat, barley, rye, and other West Eurasiatic grains.)

    Also, government regulation has done many good things. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have governments. Without antitrust laws, businesses would become monopolies, and the biggest advantage of capitalism (that is, choice in products) would disappear. Without environmental regulations, we would still have lead in our paint and oil, wonderful for children. Without schools, we wouldn’t have the technology we enjoy. Government also does bad things, of course: A railroad company only need to crash with Amtrak to make money, because Amtrak is legally always at fault. General Electric pays no taxes right now.

    By the way, if you’re opposed to government regulation, you should also stand against Michele Bachmann’s pro-using food stamps for soda stance.

  • john

    “better for you” to be hit in the head with a brick only twice rather than three times.

    I love it, this pretty much sums up all processed food in this country that make some health claim just because of one slight change in the process or ingredient list. When will we get it, the SAD is making us sick!!

  • Parents don’t know enough or care enough to act. A lot of people do not care enough to act. A decision is required first:
    needs, study, effort, sorting out of bull feathers, and health;
    or wants, convince, ignorance and obesity. It is an individual choice.

    Government is in the pocket of big business, and so far behind the times that it is useless for something like obesity. It does not yet have the political will to act, nor the knowledge to act.They are as thoroughly confused as I was until I spent the time to sort chaff from the wheat, and throw out the wheat, sugar, trans fats, omega 6, and all manufactured food from my diet. As a result, I lost weight, and developed an attitude that many find objectionable, but that is there problem.

    The Canada good food guide is a document intended to fatten the population. Slow carbohydrate, real food is the easy solution. Sort and ignore bad advice. No sugar, grains, omega 6, or MEPs. But I am preaching to the converted.

  • This is totally absurd. Fries are not unhealthy because they contain fat and salt. They are unhealthy because they are fried in rancid vegetable oils, which are full of free radicals.. Then they are salted with refined salt that probably contains aluminum, as well as anti-caking chemicals. I’m sick of hearing people imply that fat and salt are bad. The KINDS of fat and salt we use in processed foods are bad, but that does not make these nutrients inherently bad.

    Likewise, meat is not unhealthy – the factory-farmed, soy-fed, antibiotic-laden meat that McDonalds uses is unhealthy! Not to mention that there are a ton of ingredients that go into making this “meat”. Get a load of this:

    “White boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning [autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid], sodium phosphates, natural flavor (botanical source). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, dextrose, corn starch.

    Prepared in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.”

    These are the ingredients that your child is eating when they get an order of Chicken McNuggets! Do you really want your child to consume MSG, leavening that contains aluminum, rancid oils, trans fats, and anti-foaming agents? In light of all that toxic crap, a little serving of apples on the side is not going to make a difference in health. Why, oh why, does Marion Nestle not even mention any of this? Oh wait, I think I already know the answer to that question….

  • Joe

    I think mash potato instead of fries it will be a woooow healthy meal ,

  • Katherine

    Why people is so worry about Mcdonalds food? if you really think is that bad then for example why moms take their fat kids to eat there? or why fat people loves to eat there? i think that they are not the “Perfect Meal” but they have a very nice taste. If we all learn that we cannot eat there every day of the week, you will see how everything will turn out to be. If Mcdonalds is as bad as you guys say, why the goverment doesn do something to close them?

  • cha

    marion did you see mcdonalds now parterning with PTAs?

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