McDonald’s Happy Meal has been on an evolutionary course over the last six years, starting with the introduction of apple slices into every order. The chain has made changes since and improved its core items, like removing artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, and, most recently, announcing that its classic burgers are now free of artificial preservatives, artificial flavors, and added colors from artificial sources. While the pickle contains an artificial preservative, customers are able to skip it if they prefer.
McDonald’s unveiled the latest change November 15. Happy Meal menus across the U.S. are adding reformulated Yoplait Go-GURT Low Fat Strawberry Yogurt as of this month. Made exclusively for McDonald’s, it now contains no artificial preservatives, still does not have colors or flavors from artificial sources and provides 25 percent less sugar than the leading kids’ Yogurt.
Additionally, McDonald’s said it’s including Dasani bottled water as a featured beverage choice for all Happy Meals. It will be prominently displayed on its menu boards as a choice for a Happy Meal beverage.
This past February, McDonald’s also shrunk the fries and removed cheeseburgers from its U.S. Happy Meals in a launch known as Global Happy Meal Goals. The company said, by June, 100 percent of Happy Meal combinations offered on Happy Meal menu boards would be 600 calories or fewer, and 100 percent of those offerings would be compliant with the new nutrition criteria for added sugar, saturated fat, and 78 percent compliant with the new sodium criteria.
“The voluntary agreements we have negotiated and supported with McDonald’s over the past five years have led to increases in customers’ access to fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and water, especially for Happy Meals for kids. These latest changes are another step forward towards the goals McDonald’s set through their agreement with Healthier Generation in February,” said Anne Ferree, chief strategy and partnership officer at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, in a statement.
When McDonald’s made its February change, the new Happy Meal menu boards listed only the following entrée choices: Hamburger, 4-piece, and 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Guests can still special order cheeseburgers if they want; it’s just not on the board.
McDonald’s also replaced the small French fries with kids-sized fries in the 6-piece Chicken McNugget meal, which decreases the calories and sodium in the fries serving by half, McDonald’s said.
The chain is reformulating chocolate milk as well to reduce the amount of added sugar. As this process unfolds, McDonald’s will remove chocolate milk from the Happy Meal menu. Again, though, it will be available at a customer’s request.
Earlier, in December, the brand completed the transition to Honest Kids Appley Ever After organic juice, which features 45 less calories and half the total sugar of the prior product.
Overall, McDonald’s said the menu updates would produce average reductions of 20 percent in calories, 50 percent in added sugars, 13 percent in saturated fat and/or 17 percent in sodium, depending on the customer’s specific meal selection.
McDonald’s said at the time it was expecting a health benefit similar to the 2013 commitment. Back then, the company said, customers chose water, milk or juice as their beverage choice in 38 percent of Happy Meals. Four years later, that number was 52 percent. In the same period, McDonald’s said Happy Meals that include soda and other beverages decreased from 62 to 48 percent. And, for the first time, more than half of Happy Meals ordered in the U.S. have included water, milk or juice.
By 2022, McDonald's said it would make improvements to the Happy Meal menu across 120 markets. The timeframe also includes five “Global Happy Meal Goals,” which are, as outlined by McDonald’s:
1. Offer Balanced Meals
Using rigorous nutrition criteria grounded in science and nutrition policy, by the end of 2022, at least 50 percent or more of the Happy Meals listed on menus (restaurant menu boards, primary ordering screen of kiosks and owned mobile ordering applications) in each market will meet McDonald's new Global Happy Meal Nutrition Criteria of less than or equal to 600 calories; 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; 650 mg sodium; and 10 percent of calories from added sugar.
Currently, 28 percent of Happy Meal combinations offered on menu boards in 20 major markets meet these new nutrition criteria. To reach the goal of 50 percent or more, markets will add new menu offerings, reformulate or remove menu offerings from the Happy Meal section of the menu board. For example, last month McDonald's Italy introduced a new Happy Meal entrée called the "Junior Chicken," a lean protein sandwich (grilled chicken). McDonald's Australia is currently exploring new vegetable and lean protein options and McDonald's France is looking at new vegetable offerings.
2. Simplify Ingredients
As consumers' tastes and preferences continue to evolve, markets will prioritize Happy Meals and simplify ingredients by removing artificial flavors, added colors from artificial sources, and reducing artificial preservatives where feasible. In 2016, McDonald's USA removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, which also have no artificial flavors and colors, and the Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's France and Canada have no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
3. Be Transparent with Happy Meal Nutrition Information
The company has made a continuous effort to meet consumers' desire for easy access to nutrition information for menu items it serves with a goal of ensuring that nutrition information for Happy Meals is available and accessible through all McDonald's owned websites and mobile apps used for ordering where they exist.
4. Market Responsibly
Under the new goals, all Happy Meal bundles advertised to children will meet McDonald's new global nutrition criteria, and will continue to meet any existing local/regional advertising pledges with respect to marketing to children.
5. Leverage innovative marketing to help increase purchase of foods and beverages that contain recommended food groups in Happy Meals
“We recognize the opportunity that we have to support families as one of the most visited restaurants in the world, and remain committed to elevating our food, celebrating the joy of reading, and helping those in need through Ronald McDonald House Charities," said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's president and CEO, in a statement. "Given our scale and reach, we hope these actions will bring more choices to consumers and uniquely benefit millions of families, which are important steps as we build a better McDonald's."