McDonald’s put Happy Meals on a diet… and you won’t believe the results

Sit back, relax and get ready to smile. Or swear. Either reaction to the study I’m about to share with you would be completely appropriate. (I personally did a little bit of both.)

Why? Because this new research was sponsored by none other than… McDonald’s. And that’s not even the punchline! It gets way better. (Or worse, depending on how you look at it.)

According to this study, the new McDonald’s Happy Meals are helping kids cut calories. A dubious conclusion, if I ever heard one.

The researchers simply focused on whether or not people would order differently to make up for the calories cut from the smaller portioned Happy Meal.

So if customers ordered more food–and spent more money–in response, that would still be a pretty brilliant victory for the fast food giant, wouldn’t it? (And quite possibly the true motive behind this research. Because I somehow doubt McDonald’s would spend money investigating ways to get their customers to eat less.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s discuss a few of the disturbing details behind this pseudoscience. Starting with the new “healthier” choices on offer.

The main dishes are still the same–chicken nuggets or burgers. But evidently, the latest version of McDonald’s Happy Meal cuts about 100 calories on the side dishes–with new additions like apple slices, a smaller portion of fries, and non-fat chocolate milk or 1-percent white milk.

I’m sorry, but this hardly makes a Happy Meal a nutritional goldmine.

Providing fat-free anything as fuel for growing minds is ridiculous. The brain is 80 percent fat. So it goes without saying that developing children need as much of it as they can get. (Although I dare say they could do without the rancid vegetable oils fast food restaurants serve up by the gallon.)

And apple slices? Nice try, McDonald’s. That might be better than soda or French fries. But it’s still riddled with sugar–not to mention the pesticides and preservatives on those apples that keep them “fresh.”

But here’s the scariest statistic. The researchers looked at 232,424 purchases that included Happy Meals for this research. That’s over 1,000 Happy Meals sold per day… over the course of just six months, in just 30 restaurants.

I’m sorry, but does it matter whether they occasionally sold fat-free milk instead of soda? That figure is just disgusting.

Some more conclusions from this story, in no particular order…

Since March 2012, McDonald’s has introduced over 770 million packages of apple slices and cut the calories of their Happy Meals by an average of 20 percent. Well, great. But in case you were wondering, yes–two-thirds of American children are still fat.

This particular research also showed that diners were satisfied with the lower calorie choices–with the only increase being in milk purchases. A finding that spokespeople for the restaurant dubiously call “a win.”

I would add that it’s only really a win if you think that either factory farmed milk or fried pieces of unidentifiable chicken parts are good for you.

Finally, according to the team, this doesn’t make fast foods healthy–but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Any direction that has our kids eating McDonald’s Happy Meals is decidedly wrong. And no amount of fat-free milk or apple slices is going to change that.

Wansink, B. and Hanks, A. S. (2013), Calorie reductions and within-meal calorie compensation in children’s meal combos. Obesity. doi: 10.1002/oby.20668