by Marion Nestle
Sep 30 2013

McDonald’s going healthy? Really?

At the White House Convening on food marketing to children a couple of weeks ago, representatives of food companies repeatedly stated that advocates are not giving them nearly enough credit for how hard it is for them to make and market healthier products.  They have shareholders to please.  They need positive reinforcement.

Pressures on advocates to applaud food companies’ efforts may explain the furor last week over McDonald’s latest promises to go healthy.  In a deal brokered with the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, McDonald’s announced its new initiatives in full-page newspaper advertisements (read the text here):


Among other promises, McDonald’s said it would:

Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.

I did not participate in any of the press events so I can’t vouch for what was said.  But it must have left the impression that McDonald’s was dropping sodas as the default drink in Happy Meals (if parents wanted a soda for their kids, they would have to order one).

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for example, issued a press release: “Removing Soda from kids’ meals among McDonald’s improvements.”

Ronald McDonald’s slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today, but a long road lies ahead for the company. Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy’s, and other chains. Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.

USA Today quoted CSPI’s Margo Wootan:

The prospect of being able to easily order a value meal at McDonald’s that’s comprised of a burger, a small salad and bottle of water is a huge step forward, says Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It takes a meal from being a nutritional disaster (burger, fries and soft drink), to something that will fit a healthy diet.

But then folks started looking at the fine print of McDonald’s actual agreement with the Clinton Alliance.

Uh oh.

CSPI issued another press release the next day: “McDonald’s, Alliance for Healthier Generation, misled public and media re: soda and Happy Meals.”

McDonald’s and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation misled the media, CSPI, and families when they stated that the company would not feature, promote, or market soda in connection with Happy Meals. In briefings to health groups and in their press release and full-page newspaper ads, McDonald’s and the Alliance claimed that the company would “promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” But small print in McDonald’s formal agreement with the Alliance states that “McDonald’s may list soft drinks as [sic] offering on [sic] Happy Meal section of menu boards.”

In any case, as McDonald’s explains in its press release, don’t hold your breath for any of its promises to happen soon:

All pieces of this commitment will be implemented in 30-50 percent of the 20 major markets within three years and 100 percent of the 20 markets by 2020.

In other words, McDonald’s intends to carry out these promises in a third to half of most of its major national and international markets by 2016—three years from now.  It will fulfill the promises in these particular 20 markets by 2020—seven years from now.

Food companies, alas, do not make it easy to applaud them.

Promises are one thing.  Now, if they would actually do something to make and market healthier products….

Addition 1:  Let’s Move! director and chef Sam Kass has this comment on McDonald’s promises:

We are encouraged by the progress announced today…. Making it easier for families to choose a healthy beverage in kids’ meals, and providing a salad option in the value menu are positive steps. A great deal of work remains to be done if we are going to ensure our children have the nourishment they need to live healthy lives and reach their full potential.

Addition 2: Here’s an explanation of how the discrepancy was found, from its finder, Casey Hinds of Kentucky Healthy Kids.  Casey sent the link to Michele Simon who forwarded it to Margo Wootan (and I read about the exchange on Twitter).

Update, October 11: McDonald’s clarifies its commitment; it will not advertise sodas with Happy Meals.

  • Why are you okaying cheese, yogurt (ie dairy) and Tropicana juices (that use flavor packs after oxygen is removed for storage) in this recent video? Just curious

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  • Nicole Sevrey
  • primenumbers

    McDonald’s are not stupid! They know there’s as much sugar in the juice as the pop, so it’s no healthier (but sounds healthier) so they get to keep pumping kids full of sugar yet sound like they’re doing some good, and remember the milk isn’t exactly sugar free either (and no doubt it will be the full of sugar chocolate milk the kids go for).

  • Ekaterina Quist

    It’s us who give power to these monsters and us who can take it away. I dined at McDonald’s twice in my entire life and will never in a million years take my child there. Home cooking with whole ingredients (not out of a box or a can) is where it’s at and I don’t care how long it takes or how tired I am- my son and husband are my priority and they deserve healthful nutrition.

  • Ekaterina Quist

    Agree completely. All their so-called “healthy” foods are really a dead mix of nutritionally void ingredients, artificial additives and sugar.

  • I’m certainly no apologist for McDonald’s or any other restaurant, fast food or otherwise.

    That said, I marvel at our myopic focus on Mickey D’s while grocery stores seem to have a perpetual free pass!

  • Kat

    I can’t be disappointed with McDonald’s I guess – there aren’t regulations to tell them specifically what they have to do, just a vague notion from people that they want healthier options.

    So, with no regulations they’ll give people ‘healthier’ options and ideas without them realistically being what people will use so they can still make money. That’s their job. They owe us nothing – it’s up to us to make DEFINED and SPECIFIC regulations of what we want from them.

  • CanadianRD

    I think it goes without saying that what Marion is talking about is improvements. It is entirely unrealistic to ask a public to make an overnight transition from drinking soft drinks to drinking fresh squeezed acai juice.

    As a nutritionist I have learned that this kind of diet idealism doesn’t work, especially on the people that are likely to frequent fast food chains (the stressed, low -income folks).

    It’s about incremental change, both as individuals and as a society. I want to see people quenching their thirst with tap water or fresh juice when they desire something sweet, but we need to acknowledge that a move from pop to juice is a success to celebrate, even if it’s not the end goal ((though perhaps not when it takes 7 years to realize).

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  • Yamanote

    I give McD’s a B+ on this one. It seems reasonable to me to list a product they are selling on the menu. Not featuring the unhealthy choices is a great step forward. In the end, the parents need to decide.

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  • Brett

    Say it even louder and it could not be less true. Most North Americans (Let’s not forget Canada) seem to do this alot. Things such as sugar cereals and high fat food are advertised as somewhat healthy or as if they are not unhealthy. I find it amazing how poor the food choices are of people then they will go lie down on a couch for 8 hours. I think it is very important we teach children good active and eating habits about before they hit their teens as in about starting age 13. I myself am a 15 year old and i know how an active life and healthy eating choices make a giant difference but i have found myself tempted to play video games and eat food that taste “good” as a pose to food that can taste good and be good for you. As i stated it is important to teach kids about this so they will grow up more cautious about what they eat. Things like cookies should only be for treats and not whole meals is an example on what i mean. I’m not saying you have to eat like a vegan or some health freak but just be reasonable and remember that your body is a machine that requires taking care for.

  • Brett

    I was told this by my mother as she took nutrition in Univercity. There was a study done many years ago on that very fact. What it prooved is that just because a soda is not sugary it still has reactions on your body. When your body senses something sweet it automaticly goes into “Fat storing mode” meaning that it just starts storing fat for no given reason. This to say though is that it is still much healthier to have diet and sugar free. As this is easier burned fat then actual sugar stored fat from sugar pops.

  • Brett

    Well let’s look at the “Sugars column” of milk. Milk has sugars, Juices have sugars, Pretty much everything has a sugar in it. So infact their milk has no added sugar but this is a type of sugar general native to milk.

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