Change of Heart

McDonald’s has built a reputation on a simple menu, with little variation around the world. But a new range of salads and a whole new style of promotion aim to put good health at the top. Chris Lyddon looks at how and why the fastfood giant is changing.

Earlier this year McDonald’s in the US announced its “Balanced Lifestyles Plan,” which it called “an unprecedented, comprehensive balanced lifestyles platform to help address obesity in America and improve the nation’s overall physical well-being.” It also acknowledged that the move was a response to the call from the US government’s Department of Health and Human Services for more private sector involvement in finding solutions to obesity.

The department welcomed it. “Poor eating habits and inactivity are contributing factors to Americans’ declining health. There are small steps that we can take everyday to protect our health, including being physically active everyday and eating a nutritious diet,” said Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services. “This announcement by McDonald’s is a positive step toward helping Americans make healthier choices.”

The changes made included the launch of the “Go Active! Adult Happy Meal,” which includes a salad, bottled water and a “stepometer.” Along with that there is a brochure by Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer, Bob Greene, promoting walking as an attainable goal.

At the same time new Happy Meals for children were launched, including “Apple Dippers,” or apple slices which are served with a low-fat caramel dipping sauce. There is also the option of ordering burgers “low-carb-style,” without the buns, and a “Simple Steps” brochure that shows customers how to order across the menu to lower fat, calories and carbohydrates.

In Europe, McDonald’s launched “Salads Plus,” a range including salads, sandwiches, apples, mineral water and fruit and yoghurt.

“The Salads Plus range is designed to be contemporary and relevant, offering something for everyone,” McDonald’s UK spokeswoman Sian Smith told “But we always expected it would appeal most to our female customers.” As well as appealing to existing customers, the range is aimed at getting new customers into McDonald’s. A multi-million pound campaign calls on “ladies who lunch” to take a fresh look at McDonald’s.

It is working. “The last few months have been very successful,” she said. McDonald’s does not break out UK sales figures but it has made public a 5% rise in European sales in April, following the launch of the new range in the UK and Germany. In May the company reported the highest year-to-date comparable sales increase in 20 years. European sales were up 4.1% in the year to the end of May and rose 4.6% in the month. “Our new Salads Plus menu – now in 14 countries – is helping to improve consumer perception of the freshness, wholesomeness and variety of our menu,” said McDonald’s President Charlie Bell.

Consumers more interested in health
McDonald’s is responding to the increased emphasis put on health by consumers. According to Britain’s Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) 80% of people in the UK are trying to get healthier, compared with 74% a year ago.

They identify the top way of getting healthier as taking more exercise, with 40% doing it, compared with 33% in 2002. “Consumers’ view of increasing physical exercise is that it requires less effort than having to change eating habits, and means they don’t have to stop eating the foods they enjoy,” IGD said. The second priority is drinking water. More people are eating low fat food, 37%, compared with 33% two years ago. And the number of people who put eating five portions of fruit and vegetables in the top five priorities for health has risen to 32%, from 26% two years ago. Some 28% see eating less sugar as a way to improve health, compared with 22% in 2002.

Would it have happened without pressure?
Charlie Powell, project officer at Sustain, a British organisation which has been critical of McDonald’s marketing, particularly to children, didn’t believe that the company would have made the change without outside pressure. “What’s interesting I think about all these changes is that they have only come about as a result of pressure from the public and from organisations like ourselves,” he said. “This is something they’ve only done as a result of their practices being exposed.”

He wondered whether it could be a long term commitment. “If the current large scale interest in food and the way it’s promoted to children subsides, will it also subside?” he asked. “Are they still going to promote their less healthy foods to children? It would suggest that their efforts to work in a more responsible way are only window dressing.”

“I would call on McDonald’s not to promote unhealthy food to children,” he said. “I know they have educational type ads coming up. I would reserve judgement until I see them. That’s the sort of message that should be there all year round.”

“They’ve been pushed into it,” he said. “A lot of the items on their menu are very energy dense.”

“McDonald’s is just one of a number of fastfood chains,” he said. “Even if they are doing something positive there are lots of people who aren’t. It’s difficult to see how the food industry as a whole will come up with a solution.”

There were thousands of companies in the food industry, all vying to get competitive advantage. “It’s naive to imagine they have the will or can speak with one voice and can act on the promotion of food to children he said.

Sustain is promoting legislation in the British parliament to ban the promotion of “junk” food to children. Its Children’s Food Bill would also require the government to promote healthy food for children.

Food industry responds to consumers
It’s all about doing what consumers want, Christine Fisk, spokeswoman for the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, told “Obviously the food industry very much responds to what consumers are demanding. The food industry is a business and needs to respond to consumers.”

The food industry had responded to concerns over obesity and health. “Over the past ten years a large number of low fat, low salt and low sugar products have been developed,” she said. “They are all very much a response to what the consumer is demanding. At the end of the day it is consumers who go to shops and buy products.” The food industry did want to work with government on the obesity issue, but there was much more to the problem than food. “It’s about whole lifestyle, physical activity as well as diets,” she said.