McDonald’s has pledged to make its Happy Meals more nutritious.
The fast food giant announced Thursday that by the end of 2022, at least 50% of Happy Meals listed on menus worldwide will have caps of 600 calories, 10% of calories coming from saturated fat, 650 mg sodium and 10% of calories coming from added sugar.
Among the changes McDonald's is implementing are making cheeseburgers available in Happy Meals only if customers request them, reducing the size of the fries order that comes with the six-piece Chicken McNuggets, cutting the amount of added sugar in chocolate milk and adding bottled water as a featured beverage choice on Happy Meal menu boards.
The Oak Park, Ill.-based company said it also will explore adding new foods to Happy Meals, like the Junior Chicken, a grilled chicken sandwich McDonald's Italy introduced last month.
"It’s a journey. It’s a delicate balance. Customers are looking for options today they can feel good about eating," said Julia Braun, the burger chain's head of global nutrition.
McDonald's said it plans to use marketing, new packaging and order-taking kiosks and mobile apps to promote the healthier food and drink options in Happy Meals.
Currently, 28 percent of Happy Meal combinations offered on menu boards meet the company's new nutrition criteria in in 20 major markets -- the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, U.K., France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Taiwan and Australia.
The iconic kids box has been criticized for years for featuring unhealthy food. McDonald's has made to Happy Meals, such as offering apples starting in 2004, excluding soda from the Happy Meal section of its menu boards in 2013 and swapping regular juice for a less caloric and less sugary organic equivalent late last year.
McDonald's doesn't conduct studies on what is actually eaten, rather on what is purchased, Braun explained.
"We want to serve food kids will want to eat," she said. "We do have this opportunity to influence customer choice by what’s presented."
On any given day, one out of three American children eats fast food and on those days, they're daily caloric intake is higher than usual, according to Jennifer Harris of the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Frequently eating extra calories, especially empty calories, can result in a poor diet and obesity.
While research shows parents like that fast food chains make healthier options available, the reality shifts dramatically once they walk through the restaurant door.
"A lot of times, the options are available, but they're one choice out of many. If you're in a restaurant and your child smells french fries and sees the soda, it’s very difficult for kids to get the healthier choices," she said. "It increases the perception that these are healthy places, so it's OK to bring your kids there, but once inside, the whole environment is pushing unhealthy options. If you're a parent, do you risk having a meltdown or do you get your child what’s most appealing to them?"
McDonald's stock closed at $159.99, down $2.41 or 1.48%, on Wednesday.