Every Happy Meal shall henceforth contain apple slices, according to a decree from McDonald's HQ today, which boasts that the change is part of "a comprehensive plan [that] aims to help customers—especially families and children—make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald's or eating elsewhere."
And while USA Today reports that the company is claiming the apple incursion is "absolutely not" a response to growing regulatory threats from local, state, and federal governments, the Associated Press is reporting that First Lady Michelle Obama is pleased. The redesigned meals also happen to come within striking distance of the standards crafted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, initially designed to make existing Happy Meals illegal within the borders of the City by the Bay.
Apples have been on offer since 2004, of course. But no longer will American parents be forced to choose between a Happy Meal that includes McDonald's signature salty, delicious fries or one that replaces those fries with fruit. In a move that can only be described as Solomonic, McDonald's has decided that Happy Meals will include both—a wee serving of deep fried spuds (1.1 ounces, down from the current 2.4) and a baggie of pre-sliced apples (sans the creepy caramel dipping sauce now on offer). Happy Meals will also default to include low-fat milk rather than soda.
When customers were offered the choice, only 11 percent opted for apples over fries for their kids, despite the fact that 88 percent were aware of the healthier alternative. All things being equal, McDonald's might have interpreted the slow uptake on the apple option as evidence that people don't come to the Golden Arches when they want to eat healthy (or even faux-healthy) and sent the fruit the way of the McRib.
But all things are not equal. Hysteria about childhood obesity continues to mount, along with an ever growing impulse by regulators to blame commerical food providers for the problem. So governments (and activists who have legislators' ears) nudge McDonald's to include healthier options. That accomplished, the nudgers set out to convert those options into defaults. It's not hard to see demands to remove the fry option altogether are close on the heels of this concession. And always the threat of binding legal requirements lurk in the background.
But when the company itself protests that it is making changes in kids' meals purely in response to customer demand to enjoy "more food groups" and have their fast food chain of choice "create nutritional awareness," it's hard to tell where coercion begins and voluntary change ends. McDonald's is one of those brands, like Wal-Mart, that gets consistently hammered for being the biggest, baddest guy out there, even as the chain scrambles to stay ahead of the game, become the good guy, or at least be left alone.
And whenever a health or safety measure is instituted "for the children," you can bet that an adult-sized version is lurking nearby. And lo and behold, amidst the crowing about apples for kiddies this tidbit has mostly been ignored: McDonald's will be reducing sodium in its meals across the board by 15 percent in the next four years. The chain has also hired a third-party firm to report on promised additional progress to reduce sugars, fat, and calories by 2020.
The food scientists/powerful wizards working around the clock at McDonald's HQ will certainly do their best to minimize the impact of these promises on the taste of McDonald's food. But today's announcements are a perfect example of how moves to protect kids wind up taking choices away from adults (in this case, based on science that is shaky at best).
McDonald's changes are voluntary, but they happened because McDonald's exists in a world where trans fat bans are a reality, and junk food taxes are fodder for The New York Times op-ed page. Regulating food intended for kids is an easier sell, but the state is really just taking away parents' choices. And once adults are no longer free to choose for their kids, why let them go on choosing for themselves?
For now, McDonald's still serves (a few) fries to kids, and the kids are free to toss the apples. Parents can even still cobble together an old-style Happy Meal for Junior, if they are so inclined, subbing out soda for milk and nixing the apples. And Dad can add extra salt to his fries. The iron fist of the state may not be writing McDonald's menu, but neither is the invisible hand.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.