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

McDonald's cutting down on french fries and adding more healthful items, such as apple slices, to Happy Meals. (McDonald's)

The Happy Meal is headed for a nutrition overhaul.

Bowing to pressure that its kids' meals haven't been healthful enough, McDonald's will downsize french fries and put a fresh fruit or veggie in every Happy Meal.

Apple slices have long been an option with the Happy Meal. But the problem has been that parents have to ask for them in lieu of french fries. That's about to change.

McDonald's says today it's changing Happy Meals by cutting the portion size of french fries by more than half — to 1.1 ounces from 2.4 ounces.

Kids still get the treat they're looking for, and they get the added benefit of something healthy. In addition to apples, McDonald's is considering lots of new choices, including "pineapple spears, raisins and carrot sticks," company vice president Ben Stringfellow told Shots.

So is McBroccoli just around the corner? Stringfellow didn't rule it out.

McDonald's will begin rolling out new Happy Meals in September and aims to have them in all 14,000 U.S. restaurants by the first quarter of next year. As a result of the changes, the chain says it's cutting calories of its most popular Happy Meals by about 20 percent.

So, why is McDonald's making all these changes now? "We're constantly listening to our customers — and what parents and other folks tell us," Stringfellow told us.

In making the announcement, McDonald's acknowledged that nutrition researchers and advocates have been critical of the company's practices and have pushed for changes. For instance, researchers at the Rudd Center at Yale University found that families who visit McDonalds were aware of healthful choices, such as apple slices, but chose them in only 11 percent of Happy Meal purchases.

The incremental changes are a step in the right direction, according to Eileen Kennedy of the Freidman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts. "We know very clearly from consumer reseach that consumers react better to positives rather than negatives," she said.

Separately, McDonald's also announced plan to reduce sodium by 15 percent across its national menu of food choices by 2015.

"We really need the industry to stand shoulder to shoulder on this one" says Kennedy. With dietary guidelines calling for sodium reduction, the fast-food industry is taking note.

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Transcript

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...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

KENNEDY: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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