"We were curious to know how diners might have
changed what they were ordering in order to make up for the
reduction of calories," Andrew Hanks, one of the study's authors,
told Reuters Health.
Hanks is a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of
Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in Ithaca,
"That was the component we were really interested in because there's
evidence of compensation when your calories decrease," he said.
In addition to adding apple slices, the new Happy Meals contain a
smaller portion of French fries and non-fat chocolate milk was
offered along with 1 percent-fat white milk. McDonalds still offers
the same entrée choices for the meal - four chicken nuggets, a
hamburger or a cheeseburger. But the change in side items results in
98 fewer calories per meal, researchers say.
They had access to transaction records for June, July and August of
2011 and 2012 for 30 McDonalds restaurants located throughout the
United States. They found 232,424 transactions that included the
purchase of a Happy Meal.
They looked at whether the reduction of calories in the new version
of the Happy Meal caused consumers to order more hamburgers and
cheeseburgers versus the chicken nuggets, which are lower in
But they found that the selection of chicken nuggets remained the
same - about 61 percent. More chocolate milk was ordered, 20 percent
compared to 16.5 percent before the meal change, but since it was a
new offering, it's not possible to determine if the additional
orders were due to calorie compensation or restaurant promotion,
they report in the journal Obesity.
More white milk was also ordered, rising from 5 percent of orders to
6.5 percent, and regular soft drink orders dropped from 58 percent
to 52 percent.
The researchers don't know how much of the food was consumed,
whether or not children ate more later to make up the difference in
calories or how many of the meals were ordered by the children or by
The McDonald's Corporation partially funded the study.
"In March 2012, we began automatically including apple slices in
McDonald's Happy Meals. Since then, we have introduced more than 770
million packages/bags of apples slices as a part of Happy Meals.
Also, we have reduced the number of calories in our most popular
Happy Meals by an average of 20 percent," Cindy Goody, senior
director of Menu Innovation and Nutrition for McDonald's USA, LLC,
told Reuters Health in an email.
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"The changes we made to our Happy Meal reflects our ongoing
progress towards our multi-year Commitments to Offer Improved
Nutrition Choices, which include a commitment to automatically
include produce or low-fat dairy in each Happy Meal," Goody added.
A study that looked at children's meals across the U.S. in 2008
found "the overwhelming majority" were of "poor nutritional
Ameena Batada of the University of North Carolina wrote in a 2012
report in the journal Childhood Obesity, after reviewing menus at
the 50 largest U.S. restaurant chains, that at two-thirds of the
chains, 100 percent of children's meals failed to meet nutritional
standards for things like calories, salt, sugar and fats.
"There were some healthier meals available, which suggests that
restaurant chains should be able to reformulate their existing menu
items to reduce calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium and
add more healthy options like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,"
"We were able to find that calories fell by about 104 from the
three-item meal to the four-item meal," Hanks said. "We also found
that there was no substitution for a higher calorie entrée. The
diners stayed with the chicken nuggets. But there was this increase
in the purchases in milk, which is beneficial. It was a win on those
Hanks noted that his team's study doesn't mean fast foods are
healthy foods but that adding apples and increasing milk consumption
is a step in the right direction.
online Dec. 23
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