Customer choice: eating healthy at the drive-thru

March 8, 2012, 3:37 p.m.

McDonald's is rolling out a new advertising campaign for its revamped Happy Meal this week.

Ever since Morgan Spurlock blindsided the American public with the negative effects fast food can have on the human body in his documentary "Super Size Me," fast-food establishments have had to fight a bad rap and criticism from the health-conscious that their food is dangerously unhealthy and leads consumers to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

McDonald's, which was the primary focus of Spurlock's documentary, has accordingly received the brunt of the criticism. But in the midst of what the franchise calls "Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices," McDonald's has made a few recent changes.

For one, there was the so-called "pink slime" – an additive made from leftover beef trimmings treated with ammonium hydroxide – that the fast-food joint said it's planning to ban from its burger recipe.

And now this week, McDonald's is rolling out a new ad campaign this week in support of its revamped Happy Meal: a burger or chicken nuggets, apple slices, a smaller portion of fries (1.1 ounces) and one-percent white or fat-free chocolate milk.

McDonald's added apples to and downsized the portion of fries in its Happy Meals last fall just weeks after the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining launched an effort to spur fast-food chains to offer and promote healthier meal options for kids. Although McDonald's didn't officially sign on to the initiative, it did announce a goal of having the new Happy Meals available in all 14,000 U.S. restaurants by the first quarter of this year – a goal McDonald's USA spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling told OnCentral the company has officially met.

In a statement released Monday, McDonald's USA Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden called the campaign's focus on nutrition and physical activity a "significant move."

"We are proud of this approach and believe it will help make nutrition fun for kids," he said, "while helping families feel even better about the food choices they make when visiting McDonald's.

The campaign is part of the company's ongoing efforts to, per its website, "raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives," as well as "promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages in 100 percent of its national kids' communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging."

The first TV spot in the campaign, which debuted Wednesday, features Ferris, whose pet goat eats everything. In order to get his goat to eat a more balanced meal that includes fruit and dairy, Ferris takes the animal to McDonald's for a Happy Meal with apple slices and milk.

Healthy fast-food options and customer choice

In recent years, fast-food establishments have attempted to provide more menu options for the health-conscious, alongside those items with high caloric or fat content.

Yingling declined to comment on what McDonald's' most popular meal was, what the healthiest of its best-selling items was or if there were plans to increase marketing on those healthy items that were popular, stating, "We don't break menu items down this way, nor do we disclose marketing spending."

Yingling also declined to comment specifically on how many healthy options – for example, wraps or salads – are sold per year, or how many people order condiments on the side or request a healthier version of meals.

"McDonald's' menu is fully customizable and customers can make requests to meet their individual taste and nutritional needs," she said. When asked if highly caloric foods like the Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon Burger – 800 calories, 39 grams of fat – would continue to be released alongside healthy menu options, Yingling said the franchise's "goal is to provide variety and options in our menu and continue to evolve based on customer feedback."

McDonald's nutritional chart indicates that its Angus Chipotle Burger, along with its Big Breakfast with Hotcakes and a regular-sized biscuit – 1090 calories, 56 grams of fat – are among the entrees with the highest caloric content. (That goes up to 1150 calories and 60 grams of fat if you get a large-size biscuit.)

Its salads were among its entrees with the lowest number of calories – 20 calories and no grams of fat in a small side salad, and 90 calories and four grams of fat in a Premium Caesar Salad without chicken.

The restaurant's newest ad campaign contrasts starkly with the commercials of one of its major rivals, Jack in the Box.

"We really don't target children in our advertising and promotion," said Brian Luscomb, a Jack in the Box spokesman, adding that meals don't come with a toy. "Instead we focus on the quality of the food in children's meals. Our advertising focuses on the major fast food user, which is young adults, ages 18-34."

Jack in the Box, said, Luscomb, aims to provide patrons with variety and choice. "We have one of the most varied menus in the quick-serve industry," he said, pointing to the fact that Jack in the Box offers both burgers and a teriyaki bowl. "With our salads we offer the dressings and toppings on the side so the guests can flavor them to their preference. There's really something on our menu for everyone."

A look at Jack in the Box's nutrition chart reveals that the food items with the highest caloric content include its Sirloin Cheeseburger with bacon (990 calories with 66 grams of fat) and its Sirloin Swiss and Grilled Onion Burger with bacon (970 calories, 65 grams of fat). Its Healthy Dining menu includes items ranging from 76 calories (Chiquita Apple Bites with caramel, no grams of fat) to its teriyaki bowl (479 calories, five grams of fat).

Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out Burger's vice president of planning and development, said his chain's focus remains on "the freshness and quality of everything [they] serve."

"The basic menu has never changed," he said. "We serve burgers, fries and drinks. We also make every burger just the way a customer orders it and our customers frequently order their burgers prepared in a way that meets their dietary needs."

Van Fleet said a relatively low-calorie option would be a "protein-style" burger, where the bun is replaced with lettuce (240 calories and 17 grams of fat, instead of the standard 390 calories and 19 grams of fat), but that the health aspect of a meal or menu item depends primarily on how the customer orders it.

Yingling, Luscomb and Van Fleet all emphasized customers' choice: Although a menu item's standard and default form may be high in calories and fat, customers simply need to request to change that somehow.

But in a place like South Los Angeles, where fast-food restaurants comprise 71.8 percent of South L.A. eateries –  as opposed to West Los Angeles' 40.8 percent or the county's 47.7 percent – some concerned with its residents' health are asking whether that choice is enough, especially with the rate of child obesity in South Los Angeles (30 percent) that's higher than the city's average.

"The problems of a community in terms of community health have a multitude of elements to it," said Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry. "People need places to exercise, people need healthy food options, people have to be educated and educate themselves on what to do about things like childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, all those things. Obviously, we need to do more."

The question of how much more the fast-food establishments themselves have to do, however, is a topic of debate.

Tomorrow: To what extent are fast-food establishments responsible for the health of its patrons?

Photo by David Schott via Flickr Creative Commons.

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