The Scoop on Food

Does Fruit on the Menu Make Fast Food Healthful?

Does Fruit on the Menu Make Fast Food Healthful? 37796
This month, McDonald's USA introduced fresh fruit—Cuties California Clementines—as a side option for their Happy Meal and Mighty Kids Meal options.

The cuties, which provide an excellent source of Vitamin C, will be available during their peak season through March 2015.

According to a press release by the company, adding Cuties to the menu as a kids' meal option or a la carte purchase "supports McDonald's ongoing dedication to children's nutrition and well-being."

Other nutritious options currently offered as sides for McDonald's kids' meals include apple slices and Go-GURT low fat Strawberry Yogurt (though the latter option has six grams of sugar, some of it added; sugar is listed as the second ingredient).

I applaud the effort by the company to include Cuties on the menu. Even though each Cutie counts as only one quarter of cup of fruit, most kids fall short on recommendations for daily fruit intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recent national surveys reveal that although two- to five-year-olds met their recommended daily fruit intake goals (0.9 cup-equivalents* per 1,000 calories consumed), 60 percent of children don't eat enough fruit.

I hope that efforts to provide more nutrient-rich options to kids and all consumers—especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—will continue to appear on fast food and restaurant menus. Such options can certainly provide alternatives to nutrient-poor, highly palatable fare that in excess can contribute to the development of unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and myriad diet-related diseases.

The problem is, even if nutrient-rich foods like Cuties are purchased by parents and their children, that's no guarantee that they'll be consumed in place of French fries or milkshakes—some of the very items most go to fast food for in the first place. And if parents and their kids don't buy such items when offered at fast food outlets, it's likely the companies will be less willing to offer similar items in the future.

As I've written about in a previous Scoop on Food post, I'm not sure fast food will ever truly be health food. Don't get me wrong—I welcome any effort by McDonald's or other chains/restaurants to enhance their nutritious offerings. But unless more dramatic changes are made e.g. offering smaller portions, and cutting added fats and sugars in entrees and sides, adding a piece of fruit to the menu isn't going to have a dramatic impact when it comes to consumers' health and nutrient intake. That's because most fast food options including kids' meals are packed with more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium than kids need.

Fortunately, providing calorie counts on menus and more comprehensive nutrition information upon request (and on company websites) potentially can help kids and parents make more mindful choices when eating out.

However, it's prudent for all of us to limit the frequency of visits to fast food restaurants. And to make having a fast food meal or snack an occasional treat rather than a regular part of your routine. Studies suggest that children who eat more fast food tend to take in more calories and fewer nutrients than those who consume less or no fast food. Including fast food in the diet can also be a marker for less healthful habits overall. So, if you choose to go to fast food restaurants, I say do it infrequently and eat what you like (even if it's a burger and fries). Such a strategy is likely better than eating fast food meals often.

If you and your kids find yourself eating fast food for whatever reason—you're stranded at the airport, you're on a road trip, you're in a rush—choosing smaller portions and opting for the more nutrient-rich picks, like a Cutie, or something green and colorful (like a side salad with a small amount of oil-based salad dressing) and eating those first can help you eat better. They may even fill you up enough to leave over a few bites of that burger or a few French fries!

*One cup-equivalent of fruit is approximately one small apple, one cup applesauce or 100% juice.

What are your thoughts about adding fruit/produce to a fast food menu? Will it really make a difference in what kids and their parents choose/eat?

Image of Cuties via Elisa Zied.