Bowing To Pressure, McDonald's Makes Happy Meals More Healthful

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Happy Meal is headed for a nutrition overhaul. McDonald's has announced plans to downsize French fry portions, and add a fresh fruit or vegetable to every child's meal.

As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the changes are part of a broader plan aimed at reducing fat, calories and criticism.

ALLISON AUBREY: If you've ever gone through the drive-through with a minivan full of kids in tow, you know how it goes. They want the full sack of French fries. It's hard for parents to say no. But now, McDonald's vice president of communications, Ben Stringfellow, says the new Happy Meal creates the best of both worlds.

BEN STRINGFELLOW: When you have a combination of a right-sized French fry for children as well as introducing apples into that mix as well, then parents can feel good about that choice. And we think it's a really good match.

AUBREY: Stringfellow says customers will start to see the new, 1.1 ounce serving of French fries beginning this September. And in promising to include some kind of fresh produce in every Happy Meal, McDonald's is not likely to force the limits of finicky kids' palettes.

STRINGFELLOW: You know, a number of options that we've looked at include pineapple spears and raisins and carrot sticks.

AUBREY: So where are you heading with that Would there be - I don't know - McBroccoli or...

AUBREY: Stringfellow didn't rule it out. What he could say for certain is that the reformulated Happy Meal will serve up less saturated fat and about 20 percent fewer calories.

These incremental steps, aimed at nudging Americans to make better choices, are a sign of progress, according to Eileen Kennedy. She's a nutrition researcher at Tufts University.

EILEEN KENNEDY: We know very clearly, from consumer research, that consumers react better to positives rather than negatives. So rather than saying don't, don't, don't, providing healthier options in the Happy Meal is a terrific move in the right direction.

AUBREY: McDonald's says they're making the changes now because they've been listening to their customers - and likely, their critics, too. At a time when policymakers, mom-bloggers, scientists and the first lady are all focused on tackling the problem of our expanding waistlines, the fast food industry is paying attention.

Here is Mrs. Obama talking about the challenge just last week, when she announced that food retailers are committing to sell more produce, particularly in underserved areas.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Studies have shown that people who live in communities with greater access to supermarkets eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. And they have lower rates of obesity.

AUBREY: If all the conversations about healthy eating translated to easy action, people like Kelly Brownell might be out of work. He heads the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. He says one huge challenge is that kids are getting mixed messages.

Dr. KELLY BROWNELL: The average preschool child sees more than a thousand advertisements a year for fast food.

AUBREY: And it's effective. McDonald's lover Chris Wachter(ph) stopped in for lunch today at a McDonald's in downtown D.C. His reaction to plan for a healthier Happy Meal

CHRIS WACHTER: If you're reducing the size of the Happy Meal, are you reducing the price to go with it

AUBREY: Because if not, Wachter says, it's a rip-off. And this is another challenge Nutrition over value can be a tough sell.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News