The chain is promoting the new version of the item as food that ‘parents can feel good about.’
Need further proof that changing course at a corporate behemoth like McDonald’s is akin to trying to turn an aircraft carrier on a dime? The mega fast-food chain announced that it is testing—“testing,” mind you—a “simpler recipe” for Chicken McNuggets in response to consumer demand for food made with more recognizable, easier-to-pronounce ingredients.
Oops, did I say “announced”? More like admitted. The news was first reported by Crain’s, and while a corporate spokesperson confirmed that McDonald’s began testing the new McNuggets at approximately 140 outposts in the Pacific Northwest in early March, she would not say whether the company plans to roll out the revamped nuggets nationwide. “We’re not making any announcement,” she said.
At first glance, the diminutive chicken tenders, seemingly designed for greedy little fingers, might seem the simplest of foods—but not to a nation of eaters who have grown ever more conscientious about what they’re eating and what they’re feeding their kids. The current formulation of Chicken McNuggets clocks in with more than 30 ingredients, including such get-out-your-chemistry-textbook tongue twisters as sodium acid pyrophosphate, thiamin mononitrate, and monocalcium phosphate. You should always take such a profusion of polysyllabic words, so often listed without explanation, with a grain of sodium chloride—aka table salt. Not being able to recognize an ingredient doesn’t make it bad for you.
McDonald’s has been slowly and unevenly trying to figure out how to position its drive-through grub in relation to a culinary zeitgeist that has consumers turning their back on food they perceive as unhealthy and unsustainable. The company’s bumbling efforts to get with the times have allowed chains like Panera (and, until recently, Chipotle) to grow wildly by emphasizing their commitment to supposedly healthier, fresher, more natural fare. Such smaller competitors have been seen as partly responsible for McDonald’s lackluster financial performance the past couple years.
Have the Golden Arches turned a corner? Last week the company reported a 35 percent increase in profits for the first quarter, exceeding analysts’ expectations and marking the third consecutive quarter of gains. Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s CEO, attributed the bonanza primarily to the company’s decision to make certain breakfast items available all day, as well as new promotional deals like “McPick 2,” according to The New York Times. But he also said the chain’s ballyhooed commitment to sourcing cage-free eggs—another “feel-good fast food” move—was responsible for bringing more Mickey D’s customers back into the fold.
He’s probably right, but you’ll pardon my eye rolling. Just as the cage-free-egg commitment can be argued to be a bit deceptive, as the changeover won’t be complete until at least 2025, so, too, does McDonald’s appear to be counting on consumer confusion in hawking its new Chicken McNuggets. As Crain’s reports, promotional material in the test markets highlights that the revamped nuggets don’t contain artificial colors or flavors—but neither does the current recipe.
While the McDonald’s corporate rep declined to provide Crain’s with the new recipe—so much for transparency—it’s highly doubtful that the McNuggets have been reformulated to improve their nutrition profile: A six-piece order of original Chicken McNuggets paired with ranch dipping sauce and a side of medium fries packs in 730 calories and a hefty 46 grams of fat.