McDonald’s Corp. announced at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative this week a new commitment to serve more vegetables and fruits in most of its major markets by expanding options in its meals for adults and children.

While sharing the stage in New York at the CGI annual meeting with former President Bill Clinton, McDonald’s chief executive Don Thompson said the Oak Brook, Ill.-based quick-service chain would provide the choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable as a possible substitute for French fries in its Extra Value Meals. The substitution would be at no extra cost and will be available in the United States and 19 of the brand’s other major markets.

McDonald’s developed the plan with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

McDonald's USA chief marketing officer to step down
McDonald's tests tiered Dollar Menu & More
More McDonald's news

The chain is also planning several changes for the marketing and menu of children’s Happy Meals as well. McDonald’s will not promote soda and will market only water, milk and juice as the beverage option in Happy Meals. The meal’s packaging and 100 percent of all advertising directed toward kids will use fun messaging aimed at creating excitement for children’s well-being, including nutrition and active lifestyles, Thompson noted.

“This commitment reflects McDonald’s progress regarding nutrition and well-being,” Thompson said. “Our partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation is another important step in our journey.”

He added that McDonald’s has only begun the work to provide more healthful options and better educate customers about its nutrition goals. “We will continue to use our size and scale around the world to help educate, empower and encourage our customers to make informed choices so they can live a balanced and healthy lifestyle.”

Clinton praised McDonald’s move as the kind of “creative cooperation” he called for in his keynote speech at the 2013 National Restaurant Association Show.

“We’ve seen voluntary agreements with industry have profound impact, including our work with the beverage industry to limit the amount of calories shipped to schools,” Clinton said, citing a 90-percent reduction in calories from beverages shipped to schools between 2004 and 2010. “If we want to curb the catastrophic economic and health implications of obesity across the world, we need more companies to follow McDonald’s lead and to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes.”

The brand will retain an independent third-party auditor to track its progress on the commitment. McDonald’s goal is to implement all pieces of the plan in 30 percent to 50 percent of its 20 major markets within three years and the rest of those countries by 2020.

McDonald’s had previously committed to changes in its Happy Meals in September 2011, making the default side option apple slices and a kid-size portion of French fries, as well as substituting nonfat milk for soft drinks. Those reconstituted Happy Meals contain fewer than 600 calories.

In a December 2012 report, the Federal Trade Commission found that McDonald’s and other restaurants had made “modest improvements” in their pledges to change marketing practices toward children from 2006 to 2009.

Following McDonald’s decision this week to add more healthful options to its meals, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued McDonald’s in 2010 for deceptive marketing practices, called the move a “major advance” in “Ronald McDonald’s slow march toward healthier meals,” but said more work remains.

“Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy’s and other chains,” Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy, said in a statement. “Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes, and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.”

Wootan added that more fruit and vegetables in McDonald’s meals was “good news for children and adults,” but she called on McDonald’s to further reduce sodium in its food, add more whole grains to its hamburger buns and phase out the largest sizes of soft drinks.

McDonald’s operates or franchises more than 34,000 restaurants across the world, including more than 14,000 locations in the United States.

Contact Mark Brandau at
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN