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."
Other American habits also may be infiltrating Europe, she said.
For instance, portion sizes at American restaurants tend to be larger, though European portion sizes seem to be growing.
Europeans also are eating more on the go, as Americans often do, rather than sitting down for a meal, she said.
"They're doing things that didn't used to be culturally acceptable," Nestle said. "If you want to watch globalization in action, you can go to practically any European city and watch it."
Katz explained that fast food chains cannot be held solely responsible for not making certain changes to their menus.
"They're just trying to keep the customer satisfied," he said. "It may be that McDonald's customers in the U.S. are lagging behind customers in the U.K. on these issues."
Accounting for the Supplier
In the U.S., he said, McDonald's would make the same changes if customers were willing to pay more for them, because they would come at a cost.
For that reason, Katz focuses more on keeping consumers informed to make better decisions, rather than looking to the distributors. In other words, he's trying to change demand rather than supply.
He said McDonald's could try healthier versions of its burger -- for instance, using lean turkey, or a combination of turkey and a vegetable, in place of ground beef, or serving the burger on a whole grain bun.
Restaurants, Katz said, are involved in creating the food trends, and so a fast food chain would have to step up to create something filling and nutritious that also satisfies a customer's taste buds.
"I could envision a day, 10, 20 years from now, where McDonald's is a health food restaurant," he said.
But customers would have to want and expect to get that type of food when they go out.
"There is one thing I can guarantee you will change the food supply," Katz said, "and that's the [customers'] food demand."