NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - An apple a day may keep the doctor away. But when you put it in a Happy Meal, it might help keep regulators at bay too.
On Tuesday, McDonald's announced that it would add apple slices and reduce the portion of French fries in its children's meal boxes beginning this fall, effectively taking away consumers' current choice between either having apples with caramel dip or fries as a Happy Meal side.
The move by McDonald's, which has become a leader in moving from just burgers and fries to more nutritious fare like oatmeal and salads, comes as fast food chains face intense scrutiny from health officials and others who blame the industry for childhood obesity and other health-related problems. Some municipalities, including San Francisco, have even banned fast food restaurants from selling kids' meals with toys.
Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner, said the following about the addition of apples in Happy Meals: "McDonald's announcement today about reducing the size of French Fries and adding apples in their children's' meals is one example of a restaurant chain responding to growing national pressure on restaurants to offer lower-calorie and healthier items. In 2008, the Health Department passed regulations requiring chain restaurants to post calorie information at the point of purchase in order to give New Yorkers an opportunity to make more informed food choices.
This policy, which is now going nationwide, has been shown to be effective. Indeed, a British Medical Journal study released today notes that in 2009, one year after New York City's calorie posting rule took effect, one out of every six fast food customers surveyed said they used posted calorie information to make food buying decisions. These customers purchased 106 fewer calories than those who did not see or use the calorie information. McDonald's action is a step in the right direction, but given the magnitude of the obesity epidemic, all restaurants should review their entire menu and offer lower-calorie and healthier items. "
However, critics wasted no time complaining that McDonald's changes don't go far enough. Kelle Louaillier, executive director of a group called Corporate Accountability International, said McDonald's is just trying to get ahead of impending regulations that will restrict the marketing of junk food to children and require restaurants to post nutrition information on menus, among other changes.
"McDonald's is taking steps in the right direction,'' says Louaillier, whose group has pushed for McDonald's to retire Ronald McDonald. "But we should be careful in heaping praise on corporations for simply reducing the scope of the problem they continue to create.''
Cindy Goody, McDonald's senior director of nutrition, said that the new directives are "absolutely not'' related to new regulations. Rather, she said, they're a response to customers asking for healthier choices.
But apparently, customers aren't making those choices in practice. Indeed, only about 11 percent of customers were ordering apples with their Happy Meals, even though 88 percent were aware they had the option, the restaurant said.
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