On Wednesday, McDonald’s corporation announced that starting next week, the chain will begin posting calorie information on restaurant and drive-thru menus. This change is in response to requirements set forth in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act, requirements which will probably not become mandatory until late 2013. Prior to this latest move, McDonald’s has, over the past several years, made widely publicized efforts to retool its menu to offer more healthy choices – cutting the volume of fries in kid’s meals, offering a greater selection of fruits and vegetables, and pushing its lower calorie “Favorites Under 400” menu. But should consumers believe that the burger chain has turned over a new lettuce leaf and gone healthy all in an effort to address the concerns of its customers?
The fact remains that McDonald’s menu is still heavily ladened with items that are full of salt, fat, sugar, and other ingredients that are generally considered to be harmful to health when regularly consumed in the quantities that McDonald’s spoons up. A casual perusal of the McDonald’s menu reveals burgers with upwards of 790 calories (39.5% of daily recommended calories) and 2070 mg of sodium (86% of Daily Recommended sodium). While this represents the worst of offerings, the rest of the menu fares little better. And despite the push toward healthier items on the menu, McDonald’s core business, and subsequently their marketing dollars, is geared toward selling burgers and fries.
A further concern is whether or not caloric labeling on restaurant menus actually has the intended effect on consumer purchasing behavior. The New York Times reported on research conducted by New York University that measured how calorie postings affected the purchasing habits of consumers in New York, a city that passed laws mandating calorie posting in 2008. Focusing mainly on the consumption patterns of children, a major market for McDonald’s and other fast food advertising, the researchers found that the presence of calorie labeling had little effect on the ordering habits of consumers. One of the researchers, Dr. Brian Elbel is quoted as saying, “There are a lot of things that go into you choosing the large French fries aside from just the knowledge part of it. These foods taste really good. Just putting the calorie information up there, I think we know now, is not going to be enough.”
It should be clear that McDonald’s is in the business of selling burgers, and that any moves to appear more healthy can be viewed primarily from the standpoint of keeping customers coming in the door. It is likely that the company leadership is aware of the research stating that adding calorie and other nutrition information to menus does little to sway customer decisions. Adding that information though, does give the brand an image boost. The appearance of seeming friendly to health and responsive to customer concerns in that vein could do wonders for a company that has become synonymous with the expanding American waistline.
The appearance of calorie information on the menus of McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants should not be misconstrued as a radical change in the business model of the American burger joint. They still exist to serve food that tastes good and is light on the wallet and the watch if not the waistline. The new information is a welcome step in the direction of a consumer base that is more informed and empowered to make healthy decisions when eating out, but it is only that – a step. We can applaud McDonald’s after they begin to take real steps to revamp their menu lineup so that the number of healthier options outweigh the number of grossly unhealthy ones.