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Should We Be So Happy About the Happy Meal Makeover?

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Progress is progress, and while I will congratulate any company on its efforts to make healthier food options available to mainstream consumers, I think we need to hold onto our party hats before celebrating the Happy Meal makeover.

As reported on CNN.com the Happy Meal will now include apple slices, a reduced portion of fries, a choice of fat-free chocolate milk, 1 percent low fat white milk, fruit juice or water along with the usual choice of hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets (oy).

A corporate statement said, "By adding fruit in every Happy Meal, McDonald's hopes to address a challenge children face in meeting the recommended daily consumption of produce." But before you get out the noisemakers and fireworks, a statement on National Public Radio reflected the findings of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale that only 11 percent of Happy Meals purchased chose apples.

So now they are being included without choosing them. Who will ensure that kids eat them when faced with fries and chicken nuggets? The parents who have brought their kids into McDonald's in the first place?

Leaders and journalists are ready to throw an old-fashioned ticker tape parade heralding McDonald's as champions of our kids' health. First Lady Michelle Obama, who has spearheaded a public health campaign to prevent childhood obesity, congratulated McDonald's for making "progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals." She continued with, "I've always said that everyone has a role to play in making America healthier, and these are positive steps toward the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity."

Hank Cardello, a former executive at Coca-Cola and author of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat, extolled the virtues of this move by McDonald's in an article on Atlantic.com. He stated that with this "milestone in the War on Obesity," McDonald's has "found a way to align their business goals with the public's health needs. They are rewriting the traditional playbook."

I fear he may be right, especially with his analogies of likening their marketing strategies with war strategies. They do seem to have declared war on our health, or maybe it's just me.

While McDonald's is making these changes and the result may be positive for the health of our kids (if they eat the apple slices; if they choose the water instead of milk or soda; if they do not eat these meals often; if ... if ... if ... ), there are other things to consider here.

First, the brains behind McDonald's are expert marketers and if their research tells them that families want healthier-sounding choices, then they will create healthier-seeming foods. Let's not forget that it's McDonald's cheap, poor-quality food that played a major role in the obesity epidemic that threatens the collective health of this country. Has everyone forgotten the days of the super-sized portion?

And while they have moved away from extra-huge menu items, the majority of the food they sell is still excessively large, salty, fatty and filled with ingredients that should terrify us. From the Angus Deluxe with 750 calories (350 of them from fat) and 1,700 mg of sodium, to the 150-calorie Sweet Tea, to their perceived-as-healthy Fruit & Maple Oatmeal that weighs in at 290 calories with 14 grams of sugar, McDonald's leaves no stone unturned, no demographic untouched, no ploy not used to get your business.

A small Strawberry Banana Smoothie with, as their advertising states, "real fruit," carries 44 grams of sugar and 210 calories ... for 12 ounces!

But all they have to do is issue a press release that they are making over the Happy Meal in response to growing concern over the health of our kids and suddenly, in my opinion, they are being heralded as the second coming of food.

I guess, in the end, anything that keeps us out of the kitchen -- free of preparing the food our families eat so that we don't have to cook -- will win our hearts and minds and be seen as liberators of families everywhere. When did preparing a simple dinner from whole, natural ingredients become such a chore that we would hand our health over to the likes of McDonald's?

So while they may recycle their frying oil, create marginally healthier options and make their nutrition information more accessible, have they moved to using only natural ingredients in their foods? No. Have they removed all additives from their products? No. Can they guarantee there are no hormones in their meat or milk products? No. In the end, McDonald's is what it is: A fast food restaurant peddling fat, sugar and salt-laden foods designed to addict you to it, so you become a customer for life.

This move by McDonald's is about so much more than improving the nutrition of our children. It makes for great public relations. And with fast food being dealt a hearty blow due to health advocates pulling back the veil to reveal what's really in the food you are eating, this is just another way to weasel their way back into the lives of American families. As Peter Seleh (a restaurant analyst with Telsey Advisory Group in New York) so brilliantly stated, " ... if you sell more Happy Meals, you're more likely selling more Big Macs to the parents."

Maybe this is the beginning of a tipping point, a turning point for fast food becoming healthier ... and maybe it is just what it seems to me: another way to keep themselves in the news, in your consciousness and in your tummy.

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