Changes made last year to McDonald's Happy Meals selections for children may be helping kids to cut calories, according to a new study from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The researchers were curious to know how diners might have changed what they were ordering in order to make up for the reduction of calories. Previous research suggests that people compensate for lower calorie meals by making up for the calories in other menu selections.
In addition to adding apple slices, the new Happy Meals contain a smaller portion of French fries and non-fat chocolate milk was offered along with 1 percent plain milk. McDonalds still offers the same entrée choices for the meal - four chicken nuggets, a hamburger or a cheeseburger. But the change in side items results in 98 fewer calories per meal, researchers say.
They had access to transaction records for June, July and August of 2011 and 2012 for 30 McDonalds restaurants located throughout the United States.
They looked at whether the reduction of calories in the new version of the Happy Meal caused consumers to order more hamburgers and cheeseburgers versus the chicken nuggets, which are lower in calories.
But they found that the selection of chicken nuggets remained the same - about 61 percent. More chocolate milk was ordered, 20 percent compared to 16.5 percent before the meal change, but since it was a new offering, it's not possible to determine if the additional orders were due to calorie compensation or restaurant promotion.
More white milk was also ordered and regular soft drink orders dropped from 58 percent to 52 percent.
The researchers don't know how much of the food was consumed, whether or not children ate more later to make up the difference in calories or how many of the meals were ordered by the children or by the parents.
The McDonald's Corporation partially funded the study.
A study that looked at children's meals across the U.S. in 2008 found "the overwhelming majority" were of "poor nutritional quality."
Researchers of the current study noted that these findings don't mean fast foods are healthy foods but that adding apples and increasing milk consumption is a step in the right direction.
Source: Obesity, online December 23, 2013.
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