02 August 2016

McDonald's changing ingredients to boost flagging image

McDonald's announced at a recent media event that it's eliminating some unpopular ingredients from its menu in the United States.


McDonald's, which is trying to shake its image for serving processed junk food, said it's eliminating some unpalatable ingredients from its most popular menu items.

More competition

That includes making Chicken McNuggets and other items without artificial preservatives, and removing high-fructose corn syrup from its burger buns. McDonald's did not immediately respond when asked about which specific preservatives are being removed.

The changes come as the world's biggest burger chain fights to win back customers after three straight years of declining guest counts at its established US locations. Major restaurant chains are scrambling to step up the image of their food as they face more competition from smaller rivals promising wholesome alternatives.

"Why go to the position of trying to defend them, if the consumer is saying, I prefer not to have that particular ingredient in my food?" said Mike Andres, president of McDonald's US, during an event at the company's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, about its "food journey".

How meaningful the changes are to customers remains to be seen.

Read: What's actually in McDonalds' chicken McNuggets?

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said the moves by McDonald's don't seem to address the big-picture problem with restaurant food – the overabundance of calories.

For instance, he said swapping out high-fructose for sugar doesn't make burger buns any healthier.

In the past year and a half, McDonald's has also switched to butter from margarine for its Egg McMuffins and added kale and spinach to its salads. Its rivals have made changes as well.

More natural

Dunkin' Donuts, for instance, has promised to put more egg in its egg patty. Currently, the patty looks like a fried egg but is a composite of ingredients including egg whites, water, egg yolks and modified corn starch.

As part of its own push to remove artificial ingredients, Taco Bell has said it would switch to actual black pepper rather than "black pepper flavour." That's even as it continues trying to lure new diners with indulgent concoctions and neon-coloured drinks.

Subway has introduced a "rotisserie chicken" and "carved turkey" that have more texture and look more natural than its regular chicken strips and turkey. It's offering both versions to avoid alienating fans who might not want any changes.

But convincing people it serves wholesome food is particularly important for McDonald's, which has long courted families with its Happy Meals.

Read: Is it really safe to eat McDonald's again?

The company's sales in its flagship US market have showed improvement, helped by the fanfare over the introduction of an all-day breakfast menu in October. In the most recent quarter, though, McDonald's said sales edged up just 1.8 percent at established locations. That signalled that any excitement from all-day Egg McMuffins could already be losing steam.

Phasing out antibiotics

McDonald's had signalled that tweaks to its menu were in store, telling investors during a presentation in late 2014 that it was evaluating its cooking procedures and ingredients as part of its push to fix its struggling businesses.

"We need to think about our ingredient labels as being much smaller," Andres said at the time.

The company also said that it completed ahead-of-schedule its commitment to phase out chicken raised with antibiotics important to human medicine.

Reporters at the recent media event also posted images of new items like "breakfast bowls" the company is testing. And a McDonald's chef demonstrated making Egg McMuffins with freshly cracked eggs – a point the company has been trying to emphasise in advertising to convey the message that it serves real food.

Read more:

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McDonald's aims for healthier food by 2020

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