Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver surprised many with recent praise of McDonald's as having better food than many eateries in the U.K. and being better than McDonald's in the U.S., but his praise also raises questions about how deserving of praise the fast food chain is.
Oliver, who has been critical of the Golden Arches in the past, praised the fast food chain in the British press, saying it had made efforts to produce better food and be more conscientious.
"McDonald's in the U.K. is very different compared to the U.S. model," Oliver said at a press conference. He cited "the quality of beef, [that] they only sell free-range eggs, [that] they only sell organic milk, [and that] their ethics and recycling is being improved and improved."
But while Oliver may believe the fast food chain is making strides in the U.K., it is less clear if it is importing those practices to the U.S.
McDonald's did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its food policies for this article.
It also is unclear how McDonald's overseas practices might be able to improve the health of American customers.
"We all have images of chickens wandering around some beautiful farm," said Dr. David Katz, co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center. "[But] my understanding is free-range means very little and doesn't translate to any significant difference in nutrition."
He said that even free-range chickens may be more confined than people might like to think.
While some small farms, he said, may produce chicken that, fed the right diet, are more nutritious and can produce healthier eggs, many free-range birds do not live up to that promise.
"It can mean something, but it doesn't usually mean anything," he said of the free-range label.
Similarly, he said, organic is not necessarily a more nutritious choice.
"There is no scientific evidence at all that organic means anything for health," said Katz.
But, he said, organic may provide more benefits for the environment, so simply looking at how it helps an individual person is not the only measure that should be accounted for.
"Ultimately, as a preventive medicine doctor, I have to acknowledge that I can't take good care of my patients if we don't have a planet," said Katz.
Oliver's remarks also may have drawn attention to the differences between food culture in the U.S. and abroad, beyond simply what is available at the local version of McDonald's.
"It always [in the past] seems to me that the food in Europe is better, but they have a long tradition of caring about how food tastes," said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health, as well as a professor of sociology at New York University. "But we don't care. We only care about how cheap it is."
In fact, if McDonald's food in the U.K. were trending healthier, Nestle said it would be a departure from a general trend.
"It used to be that you routinely got better food in European places, but that's not true anymore," she said. "It's especially not true in tourist areas, where they assume nobody can tell the difference."
Besides American fast food invading Europe, she said, other features of American cuisine, such as getting foods out of season, also have contributed to a decline in ingredient quality.
"The basic foods still have vitamins and minerals," Nestle said. "It's very difficult to prove that it's less healthy, unless you're talking about the influx of fast food."