Like the concept of a soothing gangsta rap, the idea of a healthy McDonald’s Happy Meal seems to be an oxymoron. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Happy Meal targets kids and typically comes complete with a burger, a soft drink, fries, and a fun toy all bundled together in a colorful, lunchbox shaped package. The impact of the meal hasn’t been so healthy, though, from a nutritional point of few, and experts have pointed to it as one of the factors contributing to the obesity epidemic among kids. Now, responding to parental concerns, McDonald’s has, in fact, set out to make its infamous Happy Meal a bit more nutritionally sound.1 By the way, do you believe in the Tooth Fairy? Just wanted to know if you buy into make believe.
The Happy Meal first came on the scene in 1977. Kids liked the packaging and the toy at least as much as the food. The marketing folks at McDonalds got the idea to change the toys every week.2 This gave kids constant impetus to bug their parents to go to Mickey Dee’s at least once a week, so they didn’t miss out on any of the great toys. Over time, the toys got fancier, including such popular items as Beanie Babies and Teletubbies, which helped the meals sell like…well, Beanie Babies and Teletubbies. Advocacy groups have been pressuring the chain and legislators to stop including the toys for years, claiming that the toys make the kids crave the meals and the meals make the kids fat. Note: only a few counties in California have actually banned the toys to date.
But while the toys have changed weekly, the food component of the Happy Meal has been slow to transform. Lowfat milk finally got introduced as a “healthy option” back in the early 2000’s, but it didn’t do much for the still extant cheeseburger meal with fries and lowfat chocolate milk (and, of course, the toy), which weighs in at 700 calories, 27 grams of fat and 1,060 mg of sodium.3 To put this in perspective, consider that the American Heart Association suggests that a girl between the ages of four and eight should only eat about 1200 calories a day.4 At 1200 calories, the recommended fat ceiling would be 18 grams a day.5 In other words, just one Happy Meal with fries knocks a six-year-old’s diet out of the healthy range for an entire day’s ration of fat, and doesn’t leave much caloric margin for lunch or dinner.
The healthiest current option on the Happy Meal menu consists of chicken nuggets, apple slices with caramel dip, and apple juice — with 380 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 410 grams of sodium. Sure, it’s a lot better than the cheeseburger fiesta, but it’s only one option among 24, and most of the others fall into the stratospheric range in terms of calories and fat content. For instance, the chicken nugget option with fries and lowfat milk has 520 calories and 26 grams of fat; the hamburger with fries and sprite adds up to 590 calories and 20 grams of fat. It also should be noted that the “so-called” healthiest option contains 37 g of sugar — almost identical to the amount found in a can of soda pop — which means you might want to tie your children down with a bungee cord to prevent them from bouncing off the walls.
In any event, the range of happy options has not satisfied parents and health-advocacy groups, and so McDonald’s has announced that it intends to cut the French Fries portion in half and add fruit or vegetables to all the Happy Meals. That fruit will typically be the apples with caramel dip (get out your bungee cords), although the chain says it might offer carrots, pineapple, oranges or raisins seasonally. You can bet that these “healthy” side dishes will have something added to make them kid-friendly, like the sugar-laden caramel sauce that transforms the apple slices from mundane to treat-worthy. Still, McDonald’s says it will eventually phase out the caramel sauce, introduce fat-free milk, and limit the amount of fruit. By the way, neither Jon Barron nor the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine would consider milk (fat-free or otherwise) a health option. On the other hand, the revisions will reduce calories by an average of 20 percent, which is a step in the right direction. Plus, the chain also vowed to cut sodium by 15 percent, another marginal gesture.
But these are all only gestures. The problem is that even with the healthier options, few families go to McDonald’s for healthy food. First of all, according to the company, only about 11 percent of customers have opted for the fruit instead of the fries to date, and according to restaurant consultant Darren Tristano of Technomic, that estimate may be inflated. At one point, McDonald’s tried eliminating the fries from the meals, but company president Jan Fields comments, “When we did it [The Happy Meal] without fries, there was a huge disappointment factor.” Lots of parents complained. So if fries must be on the plate, cutting the portion size, at least, may help — unless parents supplement by buying additional fries to go with the skimpy Happy Meal portion.
Then there’s the fact that Happy Meals now comprise only 10 percent of McDonald’s sales. Chances are that plenty of kids are going for the adult-sized meals anyway, especially if they visit more than once a week and already have the toy-of-the-hour.6 And as for the healthier meal, just how healthy will it be? In spite of the fact that McDonald’s is positioning the menu changes as a sign of its “concern for customer health,” not everyone is impressed. An article in The New York Times points out, the change is a sham as soda remains an option with the Happy Meal.” Even a McDonald’s spokesperson, Danya Proud, admitted that the new meal won’t meet San Francisco minimal requirements for including both fruit and vegetable.
But focusing on flaws like the soda option and the limited inclusion of fruits and vegetables actually begs the question. The sad truth is that there’s enormous ignorance in the general public about just what makes a meal healthy, and this Happy Meal issue really drives that point home. In reality, nothing at all in the healthier Happy Meal will actually be healthy, unless the company starts including unadulterated organic vegetables and fruit in the whimsical boxes. And the chances of that happening in the near future are about as likely as national legislation making it a crime to go three days without exercise. It could happen, if our country were named Fantasia, but it isn’t likely.
Here’s what else is wrong with the McDonald’s offering. The chicken nugget meal with fries, as just one example, contains MSG, BHA (a suspected carcinogen), high fructose corn syrup, yellow 6 food coloring (linked to adrenal and kidney tumors), and may be cooked in hydrogenated oil or oil with TBHQ added, a known carcinogen. Who knows what pesticides cling to the potatoes or apples? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.7 There’s a long list of other scary ingredients, like glycerol ester (from wood rosin), red 40 (a food coloring), and the antifoaming agent dimethylpolysiloxane.
Many in the nutritional vanguard applaud the option of milk instead of soda — including chocolate milk. But milk is hardly a healthy food, as both Jon Barron and I have written before, especially non-organic, antibiotic-laden, growth-hormone-packed, pasteurized and protein denatured, commercial moo cow juice. Finally, those “healthy” apples may be one of the worst offerings on the menu, according to reports from the Environmental Working Group whose tests found 56 pesticides on inorganic apples.8 And apples absorb those pesticides more than some other fruits.
These realities haven’t stopped McDonald’s from using their menu changes as yet another marketing tool. The nutrition director for McDonald’s, Cindy Goody, announced, “We’ve been in the nutrition game for over 30 years in providing nutrition information to our customers. Now what we’re doing is we’re adding more food groups and … creating nutritional awareness.”
Well doesn’t that just explain everything! McDonald’s considers nutrition a “game.” Unfortunately, the rest of us are pretty sure it’s a life and death issue. I think that’s what they call a “conflict of interest.”
1 York, Emily. “McDonald’s to Make Happy Meals More Healthy.” 25 July, 2011. LA Times. 29 July 2011. <http://www.latimes.com/health/la-fi-mcdonalds-20110726,0,2861497.story>
2 Webley, Kayla. “A Brief History of the Happy Meal.” 30 April 2010. Time US. 27 July 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1986073,00.html>
3 “Nutrition Information for McDonald’s Happy Meals. 27 July 2011. <nutrition.mcdonalds.com/nutritionexchange/Happy_Meals_Nutrition_List.pdf>
4 “Dietary Recommendations for Children.” 28 January 2011. American Heart Association. 29 July 2011. <http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Dietary-Recommendations-for-Healthy-Children_UCM_303886_Article.jsp>
5 InfoPlease. 27 July 2011. <http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922553.html>
6 Strom, Stephanie. “McDonald’s Trims its Happy Meal.” 26 July 29, 2011. NY Times. 29 July 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/business/mcdonalds-happy-meal-to-get-healthier.html?>
7 “So, What’s in that Happy Meal Besides the Cheap Toy?” 12 February 2008. ECO Child’s Play. <http://ecochildsplay.com/2008/02/12/so-whats-in-that-happy-meal-besides-the-cheap-toy/>
8 Vogel, Chris. “Pesticides: Apples and Celery Top the List of Contaminated Fruits and Vegetables.” 14 June 2011. LA Weekly. 29 July 2011. < http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/06/pesticide_apples_vegetables.php>