McDonald’s USA has announced that, beginning next week, all menu boards within its more than 14,000 restaurants in the United States and at their drive-thrus will contain calorie counts for all menu items.
The Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain also disclosed that it is testing several new menu items for next year that would incorporate more recommended food groups and increase the number of “wholesome” choices on the menu. McDonald’s has published an independent audit of its efforts toward improving its nutrition, “McDonald’s USA Nutrition Journey: 2012 Progress Report.”
“At McDonald’s, we recognize customers want to know more about the nutrition content of the food and beverages they order,” Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA, said in a statement. “As a company that has provided nutrition information for more than 30 years, we are pleased to add to the ways we make nutrition information available to our customers and employees.”
Menu labeling is one of several requirements of restaurant chains prescribed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act , which President Obama signed into law in March 2010 and which takes full effect in 2014. Restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide must list calorie content for all menu items on their menu boards to comply with the law.
McDonald’s has executed several health-focused initiatives not only to get in front of menu-labeling requirements but also to boost perceptions of its healthfulness. Most recently, it rolled out the Favorites Under 400 menu as a tie-in with its Summer Olympics sponsorship to repackage and call out all of the chain’s menu items with 400 calories or fewer.
The chain also announced that it is testing several such items for next year, including breakfast selections like an Egg McMuffin made with egg whites on an English muffin with 8 grams of whole grains. The McWrap, currently a limited-time offer, comes in three varieties that start at 350 calories. McDonald’s said it also would look at including more seasonal fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries and cucumbers, during peak season.
In addition, Happy Meals will get more fruit and vegetable side options, as well as more grilled-chicken choices for the main protein, McDonald’s said. In March of this year, the chain altered its kids’ meal  to automatically include Apple Slices and a kid-size portion of French fries, while fat-free chocolate milk was added as a beverage choice. More than 90 percent of Happy Meal advertising on TV has included messaging for nutrition and active lifestyles since then, McDonald’s said.
Those announcements followed the release late in 2011 of McDonald’s smart-phone app that supplied consumers with all the chain’s nutritional information on their mobile phones and also included an online “meal builder” that detailed nutrition of users’ customized meals. The app has been downloaded nearly 300,000 times, McDonald’s said.
The chain also will introduce a voluntary e-learning program to educate its 750,000 employees working in company-owned and franchised restaurants about the nutritional content in McDonald’s menu items.
In response to McDonald’s announcement, advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, which for several years has called on McDonald’s and other restaurant chains to change their marketing practices toward children, said the brand should “make more fundamental, far-reaching changes.”
“This move is purely PR spin,” Sara Deon, the organization’s director of the “Value [the] Meal” campaign, said in a statement. “McDonald’s wants to paint itself as a leader, but in truth, regulations that appear in the Affordable Care Act will soon require McDonald’s to implement these changes. … The corporation must stop the egregious, targeted marketing of its unhealthy brand to children and go further to mitigate its impact on our children’s health.”
McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud told Nation’s Restaurant News in an email that the menu-labeling changes would remain in place even if the Affordable Care Act were repealed, which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has promised to do if he wins the election in November.
In addition to its changes in Happy Meals and the accompanying advertising toward children, McDonald’s also has touted its nutritional improvements elsewhere on the menu. According to the progress report published this week, McDonald’s has reduced the sodium content across its core menu by 11 percent since February 2011. The chain now serves about 100 million cups of apples annually in its Happy Meals, and since the January 2011 introduction of oatmeal has served more than 427 million servings of whole grain.
“We’ve made a lot of good progress toward our nutrition commitments, and we recognize there’s still more to do,” Dr. Cindy Goody, the chain’s senior director of nutrition, said in a statement. “As we continue to accelerate our nutrition-related efforts, we’re dedicated to offering balanced menu options and making nutrition information accessible to employees of McDonald’s and its franchisees, as well as today’s busy customers.”
McDonald’s USA serves more than 25 million customers in the United States per day.