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.
Along with the changes to the Happy Meal menu, McDonald's will also change the way it markets the meal to children, reacting to criticism the chain has faced in pairing kids toys with unhealthy foods in the wake of America's childhood obesity epidemic.
As early as next year, a nutritional message will accompany every piece of McDonalds' advertising, marketing or packaging materials directed at kids.
"One hundred percent of our national ads to children will include a nutritional announcement with it," Fields said of her company's pledge. What we're trying to do also is make children aware of the nutritional importance of their diet."
According to Ad Age magazine, in 2009, the last full year for which data are available, McDonald's spent $69.5 million on advertising for its Happy Meals. In the first half of 2010, it spent $45.6 million alone.
"We only advertise the healthy items in the Happy Meal [to children]," said Fields. "We've been doing that for a number of years."
Critics in both government and the private sector have also challenged the chain on its practice of selling kids' meals that include a toy, connecting it to the rising prevalence of type 2 diabetes and obesity among young children.
San Francisco last year effectively banned Happy Meals by passing a law barring restaurants from offering free toys with meals that have more than certain defined levels of fat, sugar and calories. Santa Clara County, also in California, recently passed a similar law curbing free toy giveaways with unhealthy restaurant meals for children, and New York City is considering a ban as well.
McDonald's has largely kept a low profile during the debate and Fields told "GMA" the new Happy Meal will still include a toy, a tradition the chain holds dear.
"The toy is an important part of the experience," she said. "Kids need to have fun."
Earlier this month, McDonald's declined to join 19 other fast food chains, including Burger King, IHOP and Denny's, and 15,000 restaurants in all in vowing to offer a children's meal - comprising an entree, a side and a drink - with 600 calories or less and limited amounts of saturated fat, sodium and sugars. The "Kids LiveWell" initiative was sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.
"We listen to our customers and continue to provide balanced menu options, including meals for our youngest guests," McDonald's spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling said at the time in explaining the chain's decision to not join.
But today's announcement isn't the first time the chain has, on its own, tried to compromise with critics by making its Happy Meal healthier.
McDonald's revamped its Happy Meal offerings in 2004 by offering 1 percent milk in addition to soda with a meal of hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets and fries, and offering the option of replacing the fries with sliced apples served with caramel sauce.
In 2006, McDonald's changed its marketing as well by dropping the advertising of the Happy Meal as just including burgers and fries. It has since then just marketed its Happy Meal as including chicken nuggets and the apple slices, called Apple Dippers because of the accompanying caramel sauce.
In the new Happy Meals, the caramel sauce along with the apple is out, making the option just apple slices instead of Apple Dippers.
In addition to the entree choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets, which will remain the same, parents can now also choose a new, fat-free chocolate milk option, in addition to the 1 percent milk already offered. Parents must request soda, and that drink option will no longer be advertised.