Originally created 04/16/04

Happy Meals are all grown up



CHICAGO - Striving for a healthier image in the age of obesity, McDonald's is rolling out new Happy Meals for adults, with salad, bottled water and pedometers - and coming soon for children, fresh fruit instead of fries.

Now it's up to the patrons of Big Macs and fries to decide how big an appetite they have for a healthier McDonald's, which unveiled its latest low-fat offerings Thursday as part of a new marketing blitz.

"If I want to eat healthy, I'll eat at home," said 33-year-old Chuck Horton as he lunched at a crowded McDonald's in Garrisonville, Va.

"I come to McDonald's for one reason: the fries. ... I think this healthy eating thing has gone too far," he said.

Mr. Horton and other fast-food lovers need not panic. The restaurant giant isn't changing the recipe for its burgers and fries - the financial meat-and-potatoes of its $6-billion-a-year U.S. operation - or dropping its triple-thick shakes.

A target of obesity lawsuits and a magnet for criticism that fast food is bad for you, McDonald's Corp. is trying to meet health issues head-on and show that it, like many of its customers, has become more diet-conscious. Top executives announced the new campaign in Washington, where U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson applauded McDonald's for promoting balanced eating and exercise.

The new "Go Active!" adult Happy Meals will be available in all 13,600 U.S. McDonald's restaurants on May 6, accompanied by brochures offering some gentle exercise advice: Walk more. Other changes will soon follow.

"We want to help adults achieve the right balance between their daily calorie intake and physical activity, and to help children adopt active, balanced lifestyle habits early on," said Mike Roberts, the president of McDonald's U.S. business.

Food-industry experts credit McDonald's with taking steps in the right direction but voiced some skepticism about its new pro-health stance.

Bob Goldin, an analyst for the restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc. in Chicago, called it ironic that the world's leading purveyor of fast food, "which has a lot of calories, fat, sodium, you name it," is trying to portray itself differently.

"Their menu has inched toward healthier; it certainly hasn't leapfrogged," he said.

The introduction of adult Happy Meals is just one in a series of related moves by McDonald's, which introduced white-meat chicken nuggets late last year and is phasing out super-sizing.

As part of the campaign, the company said that in June it will roll out healthier choices in its Happy Meals for children nationwide, such as the option to substitute apple slices and juice for fries and soft drink.

It also will distribute brochures telling customers how to modify their McDonald's orders for lower fat, calories and carbohydrates, such as by skipping the cheese or bun. The promotion has been employed at its New York-region restaurants since January.

Also new: low-fat salad dressing, a fourth variety of salad and nutrition information on Happy Meal packages starting in test markets.

Associated Press writer Brad Foss contributed to this report.