Changes in fast food combo meals means fewer calories for kids

By Gerard LeBlond

Obesity among children is a growing problem, especially with the abundant availability of fast food establishments. Public health officials estimate there is a 17 percent obesity rate among youths.

Recently, two researchers at Cornell University, Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Andrew Hanks, analyzed data from 30 representative McDonald’s restaurants to find out if children would choose a higher calorie meal to compensate for smaller combo meal portions.

Before 2012, Happy Meals were served as either a chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, or hamburger entrée. The side items were either apples or a small fry, and the beverage was either a fountain drink, apple juice, white milk, or chocolate milk.

As of April 2012, all restaurants in this chain served a smaller portion of fries “kid fry.” The smaller portion is 1.1 ounce instead of the 2.4 ounces previously served.

The packet of apples with each meal contains 3-5 slices instead of the 8-10 previously. This resulted in a 98-calorie decrease in the meal. There could also be a choice of carrots, raisins, pineapple slices, or mandarin oranges, depending on the time of year and the region of the restaurant.

The chicken nuggets meal had 520 calories with 26 grams of fat. But with the switch to one percent milk it brought the calories down to 410 and the fat content down to 19 grams.

Due to the switch, the researchers wanted to know if children would opt for a higher calorie meal or beverage. Hanks and Wansink discovered that 99 percent of the children kept with the same meal.

The chicken nuggets meal, which has the lowest calories of the Happy Meals, stayed around 62 percent of all orders. Nearly 11 percent fewer children ordered caloric soda as the beverage and 22 percent more ordered white or chocolate milk. The increase in milk orders was due to changes in advertising for the product. Also, the chocolate milk served in 2012 was fat-free (previously one percent milk was used). This change resulted in six less calories, bringing the total calorie decrease to 104.

McDonald’s tried to do away with fries in their Happy Meal altogether, but people want a choice.

Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA, said, “people come to McDonald’s and, first of all, they want the choice and the control to be theirs, but their expectation of a Happy Meal does include a fry. When we did it without fries, there was a huge disappointment factor.”

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