McDonald's, which is trying to shake its image for serving processed junk food, said Monday it's eliminating some unpalatable ingredients from its most popular menu items.
That includes making Chicken McNuggets and other items without artificial preservatives, and removing high-fructose corn syrup from its burger buns. The changes come as the world's biggest burger chain fights to win back customers after three straight years of declining guest counts at its established U.S. locations.
A representative for McDonald's, Becca Hary, did not immediately respond when asked which artificial preservatives are being removed.
It's the latest evidence that major restaurant chains are scrambling to step up the image of their food as they face more competition from smaller rivals promising more wholesome alternatives. Some of the tweaks underscore how far they have to go in changing perceptions.
Dunkin' Donuts, for instance, has promised to put more egg in its egg patty. Currently, the patty looks like a fried egg but is a composite of ingredients including egg whites, water, egg yolks and modified corn starch. As part of its own push to remove artificial ingredients, Taco Bell said last year it would switch to actual black pepper rather than "black pepper flavor."
Subway has also introduced a "rotisserie chicken" and "carved turkey" that have more texture and look more natural than its regular chicken strips and turkey. The company is offering both versions to avoid alienating fans who might not want any changes.
For McDonald's Corp., which has long courted families with its Happy Meals, convincing people it serves wholesome food is particularly important. The company had already signaled such changes were in store, telling investors during a presentation in late 2014 about how it was fixing its struggling business that it was evaluating its cooking procedures and ingredients.
"We need to think about our ingredient labels as being much smaller," said Mike Andres, head of McDonald's U.S., at the time.
Since then, the company has also said it is switching to butter from margarine for its Egg McMuffins, searing burgers longer, and changing its salad to include kale and spinach. The latest changes were announced at event about the company's "food journey" at its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Reporters there were treated to "breakfast bowls" the company is testing in Southern California. A McDonald's chef also demonstrated how Egg McMuffins are made with freshly cracked eggs -- a point the company has been trying to emphasize in advertising to convey the message that it serves real food.
Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the changes by McDonald's don't seem to address the big picture problem with restaurant food -- the overabundance of calories.
For instance, he said swapping out high-fructose for sugar doesn't make burger buns any healthier.