McDonald's has announced an initiative it calls a "commitment to support families" that includes revisions to its Happy Meal menu for children.
Fairly or unfairly, McDonald's -- and fast food in general -- has received a lot of the blame for childhood obesity. The fast food chain has taken steps in recent years to improve nutritional information about its food and make it more transparent.
The Happy Meal, a favorite among a couple of generations of children, has also undergone significant changes. McDonald's says it's about to undergo even more. The company says it will improve the Happy Meal in 120 markets, providing more balanced meals and simplified ingredients. It says the changes will be in place by 2022.
More choices to consumers
"Given our scale and reach, we hope these actions will bring more choices to consumers and uniquely benefit millions of families, which are important steps as we build a better McDonald's," said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's President and CEO.
The original Happy Meal offered up a hamburger, fries, and a soft drink. In recent years, McDonald's has introduce alternative Happy Meal combinations that replaced the fries with fruit and the soft drink with water.
McDonald's says by the end of 2022, its goal is to have at least 50 percent of Happy Meals in each market meet the company's new Global Happy Meal Nutrition Criteria of less than or equal to 600 calories; 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; 650mg sodium; and 10 percent of calories from added sugar.
At the moment, a reported 28 percent of Happy Meal combinations in 20 major markets meet that criteria.
U.S. restaurants will see the changes first
The changes will be accelerated in the U.S. By June, the company expects to have 100 percent of its Happy Meal combinations weigh in at under 600 calories.
As an example, McDonald's points to a new grilled chicken Happy Meal entree. It says McDonald's restaurants in Australia are experimenting with new vegetable and lean protein options. McDonald's locations in France are considering adding new vegetables to the menu.
The company is also pledging to simplify ingredients by getting rid of artificial flavors and colors. It also plans to reduce the use of artificial preservatives where it’s possible. The company notes that it removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets served in the U.S. in 2013.
The changes are generally being applauded by health advocates. American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown praised the move and urged other fast food restaurants to take similar steps.
"Restaurant offerings and advertising practices play a significant role in driving consumer demand for healthy menu items," Brown said. "We believe the entire restaurant industry can help achieve the American Heart Association’s goals to improve heart health by making healthy menus the norm for kids’ meals."