Michelle Obama today called McDonald's decision to add more fruit and reduce the fries in its Happy Meals "continued progress" in the fight towards solving childhood obesity.
"McDonald's is making continued progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals," she said in a statement. "I've always said that everyone has a role to play in making America healthier, and these are positive steps toward the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity."
The Illinois-based chain announced today on "Good Morning America" that it will begin serving a fruit or vegetable with every Happy Meal sold in the U.S.
"What we're doing is offering fruit to every child that comes in and buys a Happy Meal, so it is an automatic," Jan Fields, president of McDonalds, said today on "GMA."
What it means for kids across the country is that ripping into their Happy Meal box at McDonald's will deliver something different than the standard hamburger, soft drink and fries that have filled the little, red box for 30 years.
"We know portion size and we also recognize the importance of fruit in a child's menu," said Fields. "We're confident about this being a great message for children."
The first lady, who has become a national advocate for healthy eating and brought the fight against childhood obesity to the White House, also praised the chain for listening to consumer demands in continuing to change its menu.
"McDonald's has continued to evolve its menu, and I look forward to hearing about the progress of today's commitments, as well as efforts in the years to come," she said.
As the world's largest and most profitable restaurant chain by sales, McDonald's has faced the most intense scrutiny among fast food chains, targeted by Congress, local governments and the private sector alike, for both the nutritional quality of its food and its marketing to children.
"Now is a great time for us to be able to do something like this," Fields said on "GMA." "We think both parents and children are going to absolutely love the changes that we're making."
A study last year by the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale University found that not one of the Happy Meal's possible food combinations met the standards for good nutrition for children under age 12, with the highest-calorie option adding up to 700 calories.
Now, instead of offering children the choice of apples or fries, as McDonald's had experimented with in the past, all Happy Meals will automatically include both.
To make room for the fruit, french fry holders in Happy Meals will now contain 1.1 ounces of potatoes, down from 2.4. While apple slices will be the featured healthful side dish, the meal could also be carrots, raisins, pineapple slices or mandarin oranges, depending on the time of year and the region in which they're being served.
The chain estimates the announced changes to the Happy Meal will save an estimated 49 billion calories in American kids' diets annually.
Young customers can also skip the fries and double up on apple slices, but parents interested in that change must ask.
"We'll do whatever a customer wants at McDonald's," Fields said.
McDonald's will make the changes to its children's meal beginning in September in some markets, with all 14,000 restaurants offering the revamped Happy Meal by next April.
Although subject to variation depending on what's ordered, the new meals will represent, on average, a 20 percent decrease in calories, a 15 percent decrease in sodium and a 20 percent reduction in saturated fat, according to Fields.
That makes the meal a healthier option, but not healthy enough in the minds of some nutritional experts.
"A little bit makes a little bit of difference, and every little bit does count," Miami-based nutritionist Rachael Richardson told "GMA." "A big difference would be actually replacing a whole bag of french fries for an apple."
According to Richardson, the new Happy Meal still clocks in with a total 89 grams of sugar.
"I am confident about the changes that we're making on our Happy Meals," Fields said on "GMA" in response to nutritionists like Richardson who question why the chain did not go further in its menu modifications.