26 July 2011

Much ado about nothing: McDonald's announces disappointing nutrition plan

Today, McDonald's announced a plan that it says will help its customers "make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere." The plan includes reducing added sugars, saturated fat, and calories "through varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations" and reducing sodium by "an average of 15 percent overall across its national menu of food choices."

It doesn't get much vaguer than "varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations." Does that mean there will be a healthy portion option alongside the Super-Duper-Diabetes option? Or that the absurdly sized items will be removed from the menu altogether? And unfortunately, reducing sodium by 15% overall across the menu doesn't mean much. Adding some low-sodium options that nobody who would ever set foot in a McDonald's in the first place would choose to balance out the sodium sand sculptures on the other end of the spectrum won't fix anything.

McDonald's USA President Jan Fields said, "The commitments we’re announcing today will guide the future evolution of our menu and marketing." The key word here is "marketing." Beginning in 2012, McDonald's will incorporate "nutrition messages" in all of its national marketing, from TV advertisements to Happy Meal packaging.

If a parent sees a commercial with healthy images linked to McDonald's, that parent might think, "Awesome! I'll take my kid to McDonald's for lunch, since now McDonald's is apparently healthy and inexpensive." The Happy Meal the child receives will include the same Hamburger, Cheeseburger, or Chicken McNuggets as before this bogus announcement, the same french fries (although a slightly smaller serving), and (get ready, this is going to knock the socks off your newly healthy feet!) a half serving of apple slices. Woah. A whole half serving of preservative-soaked apple slices packaged in a plastic bag. Because heaven forbid McDonald's actually hand your kid a real apple.

This marketing campaign seems not just unhelpful, but dangerous. The fact is, McDonald's food is not good for you. Forget "nutrition-minded choices"; if you're standing in a McDonald's, you have already made a poor nutrition choice. Research cited in the McDonald's press release found that while 88% of its customers are aware of the current option to substitute apple slices for french fries, that choice is made for only 11% of Happy Meal purchases. Obviously, McDonald's customers aren't interested in the apple slices.

This new initiative (if it can be called that) makes light of the very real, very dangerous obesity epidemic facing the United States. McDonald's will profit from branding itself as "nutrition-minded" while actually worsening the problem by encouraging more people to eat at McDonald's.

The only good component of this plan that I can see is the funding McDonald's now plans to provide to certain community nutrition awareness programs. Just as long as it doesn't come in the form of a Happy Meal toy.

Meghan Joyce | Facebook
Meghan has been a vegan for a few months and blogs about it at MeghanTheVeghan.blogspot.com. She's a PhD student in musicology, an opera singer, and a yoga enthusiast who loves eating and loves the world.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/happy-meal