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As the saying goes, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." But can adding the wholesome fruit to a kids` fast food meal keep health critics away? In the case of the new Happy Meals at McDonald`s, not likely. As part of the restaurant chain`s effort to help kids eat right, McDonald`s recently changed its popular kids` meal. The company added a bag of apple slices and reduced the Happy Meal`s portion of French fries. Many critics, however, question whether the changes are sufficient.
McDonald`s began offering its healthier Happy Meals in September 2011. The bag of apple slices and smaller portion of fries both come automatically with the new Happy Meals. Customers who don`t want fries have the option of two bags of apple slices instead. Customers may also choose fat-free chocolate milk to drink with the meal. The change comes as many fast food chains face criticism from health officials and others. These critics have accused the industry of contributing to childhood obesity and other health-related problems.
"We`re adding more food groups and...creating nutritional awareness," said Cindy Goody. Goody is McDonald`s senior director of nutrition.
McDonald`s first revised its Happy Meals in 2004. At that time, the restaurant chain offered consumers a choice between apples or fries. However, most customers did not opt for the healthier choice. About 88 percent were aware that they had the option. But only 11 percent of customers ordered apples with their Happy Meals. Officials at McDonald`s believe that automatically including fruit in the Happy Meals will be more effective at improving young people`s eating habits.
"McDonald`s agrees with leading food and nutrition experts that making [small] lifestyle modifications with food consumption may lead to improvements in an individual`s well-being," said Goody.
Some observers say that the changes may in fact prove effective. Jonathan Marek is a market analysis expert. According to Marek, including apples and a smaller portion of fries is more likely to modify customers` eating habits than simply offering apples as an alternative.
But many health critics remain unimpressed with the restaurant chain`s efforts. They assert that the changes don`t go far enough to help kids eat nutritious foods.
Kelle Louaillier is executive director of a group that works to protect public health. "McDonald`s is taking steps in the right direction," Louaillier said. "But we should be careful in heaping praise on corporations for simply reducing the [size] of the problem they continue to create."
Whether the changes will help more young people eat right remains to be seen. Either way, the changes are expected to be good for McDonald`s. According to Marek, the effort is a good public relations move. It could help drive sales.
Indeed, the company`s previous efforts to offer healthier fare have succeeded in enticing customers. In 2003, McDonald`s added salad entrees to its menu. More recently, the chain introduced smoothies and yogurt parfaits. The moves seem to have paid off. Last year, the restaurant chain`s U.S. revenue rose 4.4 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. revenue fell at a host of other fast food chains. Those include Burger King, Wendy`s, Arby`s, Sonic, and Jack in the Box.
Danya Proud is a spokesperson for McDonald`s. Proud said that the company`s ability to adjust to customers` demands has helped bring already loyal customers through the doors more often. Responding to consumer demand, she said, has also attracted "people who hadn`t traditionally visited us in the past."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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