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Hey McDonald's, How Do You Like Them Apples? Why I'm Not Unhappy With the New Happy Meal.

These changes don't amount to a hill of beans from a nutrition perspective. From a habits perspective, though, the changes are worth considering. Let me explain.
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Last week McDonald's began rolling out its new Happy Meal. In case you missed it, don't worry the changes aren't big. The new Happy Meal has:

  • 3 or 4 slices of apple
  • One ounce fewer French Fries
  • Less sodium

Even though McDonald's is proud--they took out a full page ad in the New York Times on December 1st to crow -- these changes don't amount to a hill of beans from a nutrition perspective. From a habits perspective, though, the changes are worth considering. Let me explain.

When the changes were announced over the summer just about everyone in the nutrition/food world had something to say:

If McDonald's were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars.

Mark Bittman wrote:

A Happy Meal with a piece of apple is still a box of branded, overpriced junk food.

I agree. And I'm not saying that I wouldn't like to see bigger changes. Of course I would. But I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when McDonald's puts its branding might behind apples.

It's easy to scoff at the addition of 3 or 4 apple slices to the Happy Meal, but who else can so easily convince kids to eat apples?

I'm sure you think most kids will eat the fries and dump the apples; don't be so sure. Branding shapes taste preferences. (I guess that's what a multi-billion dollar advertising campaign can buy you!)

Check this out: Researchers in California asked a group of preschoolers to taste two sets of carrots. One set was placed on top of a McDonald's French fries bag. The other set was placed on a plain white bag. What do you think happened? The kids preferred the McDonald's carrots. Identical food. Different packaging.

The researchers took McDonald's French fries. They placed some in a McDonald's bag and some in a plain bag. The preschoolers said the McDonald's French fries tasted better -- even though the plain bag fries were also McDonald's fries. Identical foods. Different packaging.

The same thing happened when the researchers presented the children with Chicken McNuggets and with milk: the kids thought the branded food tasted better.

See, kids don't really know what they like. They know what they think they like! It's really a case of mind over matter.

If McDonald's can do this for apples... wouldn't that be a good thing? I think so.

And it's likely that the experience of apple eating could influence eating beyond the Happy Meal.

A research paper appearing in the December issue of the journal Appetite makes a pretty compelling case for the role of habits in shaping eating behavior. Reviewing dozens of studies, a team of researchers show that people don't always make active eating choices, Rather, they often simply act (or in this case, eat) in the way they have in the past.

So, I'm not talking about habits in the sense of, "Did you eat your veggies today?" Rather, I'm talking about habits in the way behavioral scientists do: as automatic actions people take without thinking about them.

In other words, as kids get used to eating apples with Happy Meals, they will be more likely to eat apples at other meals, because they'll be on autopilot. That's the way habits work. And that's why I'm not so unhappy with the Happy Meal.

© 2011 Dina R. Rose author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.