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PBH Lauds McDonald's Nutrition Promises

OAK BROOK, Ill. — McDonald's is looking to get closer to consumers as part of its long-range promise to bolster its menus with healthier choices now, and in the future. It wants consumers' input.

The restaurant giant last week announced its “Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices,” a plan that will include adding fresh fruit, vegetables or low-fat dairy to every Happy Meal, reducing added sugars, saturated fat and sodium across the board, and increasing access to nutrition information.

Industry sources gave kudos to the chain for its proactive approach to helping people eat right, and also to staying in close touch with its customers to see what they want.

The company's priorities include a nationwide “Listening Tour” by McDonald's executives to garner information from parents, children, nutrition experts and industry sources. New priorities also include a reduction in calories, salt and fat in existing menu items, and significant changes in Happy Meals. The list of commitments, made public last week, was applauded by Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Hockessin, Del.

“I think McDonald's has all along done a great job of combining good public health principles with what their customers actually want,” Pivonka told SN in an interview last week.

The “Listening Tour,” one of the first new endeavors to be kicked off, will get underway later this month.

“We're still working through the exact details of the tour, but it will consist of multiple events with members of McDonald's executive leadership in locations across the country,” a McDonald's spokesperson told SN.

Sources outside McDonald's said the company has been head and shoulders above other fast-food restaurants in its interest in offering good nutrition for a long time.

“We've been working with McDonald's for seven years, and we've seen them making changes along the way,” said Pivonka. “And it's been our experience that they will do what they say they will, and if they don't, they'll tell you why. It's always a good reason.”

She spoke of McDonald's tests in various restaurants — for example, the gradual reduction over time of sodium in certain products.

“Statistics show McDonald's feeds 9% of the population on any given day,” Pivonka noted. “So their new commitment to reduce salt by 15% overall is great. The number of people it reaches with lower-sodium products could have a significant impact on the public's health.

“I personally have noticed menu changes in individual restaurants. As far back as four years ago, I had a salad at a McDonald's somewhere in the Midwest when I realized the chicken was much less salty than it had been previously.”

One of the most significant changes Pivonka and others see in the company's recent list of commitments is the automatic inclusion of sliced apples in Happy Meals.

For a long time, sliced apples were an option. Customers could request them instead of french fries, but only 11% of customers took the apple option, McDonald's said in its statement to the press.

Nonetheless, they've now made sliced apples a default option in Happy Meals. A small bag of apples and a small package of fries will be standard. The impact will be an estimated 20% reduction in calories of the most popular Happy Meals. The new meals will start appearing in September.

The fact that apple slices will become a normal part of Happy Meals can resonate beyond the Happy Meals themselves. Getting kids to see apples as “cool” because they're associated with Happy Meals has to be a plus for anyone — supermarkets included — who sells apples.

The new commitment by McDonald's is timely as casual-dining restaurants reveal that customers are actually ordering the healthier items on their menus. The Food Channel's online trend newsletter last week noted that for the first time one of Applebee's 550-calorie menu items topped its bestseller list. And Friendly's, driven by customers' increased interest, has added low-calorie items to its permanent menu.