McDonald's Finds it Tough to Get Customers to Eat Healthy

Last Updated Jul 2, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

You've got to give McDonald's (MCD) credit for trying to offer its customers some healthier options. Personally, I've always liked its fruit and walnut salad, and little $1 Mac Snack Wraps, which are so affordable -- but wait! McDonald's just announced both those items are going off the menu because nobody (except me, apparently) was ordering them.

The plan is to replace them with even more healthy items. Just-fruit smoothies are already on their way, and oatmeal is slated to hit the breakfast menu in January. The Mac wrap (basically a McDonald's hamburger in wrap form) is being replaced by a more upscale Angus beef wrap. It won't surprise me if, within a year or 18 months, these new items also leave the menu. There's a sad reality to McDonald's ever-growing menu. First, the expanded menu adds food sourcing and training costs. Remember, this chain's success was built on a limited menu of burgers, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, and Egg McMuffins. Second, and even more of an issue: McDonald's just isn't top of mind when people decide, "Let's grab something healthy for dinner."

With its health food push, McDonald's is trying to reshape the public's perception of it. For more than 50 years its been known as an icon in the world of fattening burgers and fries. It'll be a long slog to change that impression in customers' minds, assuming it can be done at all. McDonald's can lead Americans to low-cal salads, it appears, but it can't make them buy them.

The chain has been more successful on the health-food front with its addition of healthier choices within the context of traditional McDonald's fare, such as the Happy Meal option of getting apple slices instead of fries. This allows parents to cut some calories, while still saying, "Look honey, chicken nuggets!"

On that front, the smoothies have the makings of an add-on hit -- some franchisees are apparently promoting them early without corporate permission, and McDonald's has asked them to stop, for fear of shortages.

But to really make headway here, some of the core fattening items might need to leave the menu or be revamped into healthier versions. McDonald's is making one step in that direction by discontinuing one of the chain's pig-out items, the Big N' Tasty burger (McDonald's version of the Burger King (BKC) Whopper). But it will likely take a lot more effort and experimentation -- not too mention focus on making the healthy items really delicious -- before McDonald's customers are lovin' their health food.

Photo via Flickr user Claudia_midori
  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.

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