Tuesday, January 6, 2004

McDonald’s Corp. yesterday began an educational campaign around New York City to help dieters pick healthier items on its menu.

The “Real Life Choices” program at the 650 McDonald’s restaurants in New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut tells customers how to cut carbohydrates, fat and calories from the existing McDonald’s menu by altering their order.

The campaign is the latest in a series of health initiatives by McDonald’s in the past two years amid obesity-related lawsuits targeting the fast-food giant and other major players in the food industry.

One poster shows how customers can dine on a McDonald’s salad and a Quarter Pounder with cheese — without the bun or ketchup — for under 7 grams of carbohydrates.

Calorie counters at breakfast can order an Egg McMuffin without for 300 calories.

“There is definitely demand for meal options geared toward a healthier lifestyle,” said Adam Salgado, McDonald’s marketing manager for the New York Tri-state region.

However, there are no immediate plans to take the program nationwide. McDonald’s officials at the Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters did not return calls for comment.

Rather than focus on a specific diet or product, the chain worked with nutritionist and author Pamela Smith to develop the initiative, using guidelines from the American Heart Association, Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health.

“I teamed up with McDonald’s to show consumers how to enjoy the McDonald’s food they love, without compromising their diets,” Ms. Smith said in a press release.

Ms. Smith assigned menu items into three categories for consumers: “Watching Calories,” “Watching Fat,” and “Watching Carbohydrates.”

The program follows other initiatives that include adding salads, remaking chicken nuggets using all white meat and test marketing an adult version of the Happy Meal — called Go Active — that encourages exercise.

Other chains also have rolled out healthier products in the last year.

Burger King in September introduced three sandwiches with 5 grams of fat and 350 calories each and a “lite combo meal” that includes bottled water and a salad.

Subway last week introduced two Atkins-diet approved sandwich wraps with 11 net carbs each. While Subway’s menu boards have some nutritional information on the wraps, spokesman Les Winograd said the chain has no plans to list calories or carbs next to other items.

Critics and some consumer groups say the measures do not go far enough.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III, head of a group of trial lawyers bringing obesity related lawsuits, called the McDonald’s program “a step in the right direction.”

But restaurants should “go full tilt and put that information up on the menu board in front of the counter where people actually make their choices,” he said.

Mr. Banzhaf said his group is currently making a model complaint for other trial lawyers to use in suing the food industry on obesity related grounds.

They are shaping their arguments based on testimony by a U.S. District judge who dismissed two lawsuits against McDonald’s last year. Both lawsuits asserted that the chain caused the obesity of regular patrons.

The government also has been pressuring the fast-food industry to provide more in-store nutritional information. The District and several states, including Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Texas and California, are considering menu-labeling legislation.

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