The Chain Gang

Wouldn’t It Make More Sense for McDonald’s to Stop Pretending It Sells Healthy Food?

The good ol' days, before McDonald's added salads and smoothies to its menu.
The good ol’ days, before McDonald’s added salads and smoothies to its menu. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When 9-year-old Hannah Robertson told McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson last week that she thought it was unfair for McDonald’s to “trick” kids into eating unhealthy food, Thompson, as you might expect, responded by telling Robertson, flatly, “We don’t sell junk food.” The exchange made headlines, but it wasn’t surprising that the CEO of any fast-food company would try to deflect crticism of their product and marketing tactics, no matter how precocious the accuser is (it turns out a watchdog group called Corporate Accountability International orchestrated Hannah’s statement). The story would have ended there, except reports came out this week that said Thompson was touting a twenty-pound weight loss despite a daily diet of his company’s food. The message the company is sending is clear: We don’t sell food that will make you fat. The obvious problem with this is that of course the company sells food that makes you fat, and everyone knows this — so why doesn’t McDonald’s just embrace its true self?

In addition to Thompson’s comments, McDonald’s has been pushing plenty of health-washed products: egg-white McMuffins, fruit smoothies, and “premium” chicken wraps that are being praised for their freshness. And of course McDonald’s continues to play up the pedigree of its suppliers in hopes of convincing customers its food is wholesome. Guess what. Turns out people don’t want health food at McDonald’s. Overall sales slipped in April when compared to last year’s figures, and at the same investor conference at which Thompson said he’d dropped twenty pounds, he also revealed that things like salads make up no more than 3 percent of overall sales, so the company will ditch that and, according to Thompson, refocus their energy on advertising burgers.

Yet that push already started: McDonald’s is introducing a new line of gut-buster burgers. Get ready for Bacon Habanero Ranch and Bacon Cheddar Quarter Pounders (610 and 600 calories, respectively).

People can go elsewhere for salads and smoothies. They go into McDonald’s when they want something cheap and filling. (Or, obviously, when they need to use the bathroom and it’s an emergency.) While salads make up a fraction of overall sales, food on the Dollar menu reportedly accounts for up to 14 percent. And McDonald’s regonizes that, too. Which is why they’re continuing to add items to their value menus.

It makes sense that McDonald’s would try to act like they’re doing their part to help Americans get less fat, but if nobody’s buying it, why should they even bother? As evidenced by the blowback after Thompson’s “we don’t sell junk food” comment, consumers haven’t warmed to the idea of McDonald’s as a place to get high-quality, nutritious food. The chain makes food that’s engineered to deliver as much salt and fat as possible, which you can then wash down with a big ol’ Coke. The company made its fortune as a place to get cheap burgers that were more or less uniform no matter where you got them. (Potential McDonald’s slogan: “Hey, it might not be good, but at least it’ll be familiar.“) And the sales figures would seem to indicate that, by and large, it’s why people continue to go back to McDonald’s. (Plus, yeah, those fries are still pretty great.)

Sure, a company as enormous as McDonald’s aims to be all things to all people, but if the gangbusters success of Taco Bell’s Doritos tacos proves anything, it’s that Americans are more than happy to shovel some seriously gross shit into their mouths. McDonald’s needs to stop pretending they make high-quality food and just embrace the depressing reality that even if Americans say they want to eat healthier, a lof of them would rather just eat a cheap burger instead.

’We don’t sell junk food’, says McDonald’s CEO to a 9-year-old girl. A whopper? [Christian Science Monitor]

McDonald’s CEO loses weight on “McDiet” [AP/USAT]

Wouldn’t It Make More Sense for McDonald’s to Stop Pretending It