Health by Stealth: McDonald's Secretly Cuts Calories but Not at Home

If fast-food mainstays can be made healthier abroad, why aren't the same changes made in the U.S.?

McDonald's restaurant in Mumbai. (Photo: Frank Bienewald/Getty Images)

Feb 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Is the secret to making fast food healthier to keep healthier fast food a secret? Halfway around the world, it appears McDonald’s is trying to find out.

At franchises across India, the chain has reduced the amount of sodium in its sauces and buns by 10 percent and in its fries by 20 percent, according to Reuters. During the last six months, it’s cut the calories in its sauces by 30 to 40 percent. Rather than make a big to-do about its new better-for-you fare, McDonald’s has instead opted for a quieter approach—so quiet that the company has pretty much kept mum about the changes.

McDonald's Maharaja Mac and McAloo Tikki
sandwiches. (Photo: Facebook)

Instead, the strategy here seems to be to sneak the healthier changes past the taste buds of consumers—and it may very well be working.

As Reuters reports, “Loyalists interviewed in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai said they did not detect any difference in taste.”

“I order from McD’s at least twice a month and think it tastes pretty much the same,” Rahul Dutta, a marketing exec based in New Delhi, tells the news service.

The rise of fast-food chains in countries such as India—along with the general creep of diet trends related to the West’s penchant for sugar-, salt-, and fat-laden processed foods—has coincided with a rise in diet-related ailments such as obesity and diabetes. It would seem the world’s largest fast-food chain may be trying to head off more criticism that it's contributing to such ills.

Yet what about in the U.S.? It’s not like we don't have an obesity epidemic of our own, and as Reuters points out, the burger giant is facing increasing competition at home from chains such as Panera and Chipotle, which are perceived by health-conscious consumers to offer healthier food.

Could a similar health-by-stealth strategy work for McDonald's here? Don't bet on it.

Yes, the restaurant industry has long been bracing for federal regulations that will require large chains to prominently post calorie counts on their menu boards. Last fall the Food and Drug Administration announced its final rules, which apply to not only restaurant chains but a host of food outlets, including vending machines, movie theaters, and grocery stores that sell prepared food. These rules are set to take effect later in the year, but McDonald’s has been posting calorie counts since 2012.

It would seem the push to make calorie counts more public, coupled with Americans’ stated demand for healthier options, has led restaurant chains to focus on new menu offerings—from McDonald’s wraps to Pizza Hut’s Skinny Slice—instead of making standbys healthier. A study conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published last October found that the amount of calories in new menu items that debuted in 2013 at major chains, including McDonald’s, dropped an average of 60 calories—or 12 percent—compared with the year before.

But that's for new food. Big restaurant chains are notoriously wary of tinkering with their most popular, tried-and-true menu items, and McDonald’s, which recently sent its CEO packing after suffering a string of lackluster quarterly reports, would appear to be in no position to mess with its stable of fast-food icons like the Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder.

It’s ironic, in a way: By quietly reducing the amount of sodium and calories at its American restaurants, McDonald’s could arguably have a far greater impact on public health at large, but that’s what makes such a move unlikely. After all, McDonald’s is a relative newcomer in India—the first outpost there opened less than 20 years ago. Indians, by and large, did not grow up eating McDonald’s; there are fewer than 400 McDonald’s stores in all of India, compared with more than 14,000 in the U.S. Thanks to deep-seated cultural and religious norms, the chain doesn't serve beef on the subcontinent, making the menu altogether different. Thus, Indians’ expectations of how a McDonald’s sandwich “should” taste are more malleable.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., whatever “lovin’ it” we may be doing at McDonald’s may very well have stagnated into more of a love-to-hate relationship.