Bruce Horovitz, USA Today
McDonald's on Thursday, in partnership with a nutrition-focused branch of the Clinton Foundation, revealed plans to begin offering side salads as substitutes for french fries in its value meals - at no additional cost - in the U.S market in 2014.
McDonald's also committed, on a near-global basis, to promote only water, milk or juice as the beverages that come with its Happy Meals, and promised to place nutritional messages on Happy Meal packaging. While soft drinks will still be available with the meals, they won't be promoted.
McDonald's is making this promise for 20 of the chain's largest world markets, to be fully implemented by 2020. The nutritional moves were brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a childhood nutrition initiative founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation. McDonald's will hire a third-party organization to track and verify the progress.
"This is very serious," says McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, in a phone interview with USA TODAY. "This will increase the access of fruits and vegetables to kids not just in the U.S. but around the world."
For McDonald's, it's another nutritional move forward and one certain to be watched - if not matched - by industry rivals. Earlier this year, Taco Bell vowed to meet new goals to cut calories and sodium from its menu by 2020. Two years ago, Subway slashed the sodium in its sandwiches. Burger King this week rolled out a lower-calorie and lower-fat French fry. Because of McDonald's vast size and enormous marketing resources, the fast-food giant's latest move is being applauded by some nutritionists.
The prospect of being able to easily order a value meal at McDonald's that's comprised of a burger, a small salad and bottle of water is a huge step forward, says Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It takes a meal from being a nutritional disaster (burger, fries and soft drink), to something that will fit a healthy diet."
At the same time, the move to take any mention of sodas off of the Happy Meal menu is significant, says Wootan. Many marketers follow McDonald's lead in defining exactly what a kids meal is, she says. If that definition is evolving to something better at McDonald's, it could have a broader impact on society.
Even then, she says, McDonald's needs to get more fruits and veggies onto its menu.
That's already in the works, says Thompson, who says McDonald's continues to "evolve" its menu.
"This won't be the end-all solution," says Thompson. "We want to have kids consume more fruits and veggies around the world, and we want to make access easier."
More options are on tap, he says, but he declined to be specific.
Asked to pinpoint what's really prompting McDonald's to make these nutritional changes, Wootan says that doesn't really matter. "As a mom, I don't care what their motivation is," she says. "What matters is that this will be better for kids."