Offering the Skinny on Calories New McDonald’s Campaign Lists Lighter Options

McDonald’s is tweaking the look of its menu and drive-thru ordering boards, highlighting items that weigh in at less than 400 calories.

The campaign, known as “Favorites Under 400 Calories,” starts Tuesday and will run in conjunction with the Olympics. The menu and advertising push marks the second time the Oak Brook-based fast-food giant has focused a campaign on calorie counts, following last year’s promotion of breakfast items under 300 calories.

“We’ve been looking at new ways we can provide easy-to-find and easy-to-understand, simple nutrition information,” said Neil Golden, McDonald’s USA chief marketing officer.

Boards will be organized by calorie counts, segmenting items in calorie blocks. That means, for example, that under the heading 400 calories or less, consumers will see such items as medium fries, Filet-O-Fish sandwich and an Oreo McFlurry. For 300 calories or less, consumers can order a Southwest Salad or Strawberry Banana Real Fruit Smoothie.

“We want customers to understand that they have food that they love, but food that they can feel good about enjoying regularly,” Golden said.

McDonald’s wouldn’t say when those menu counts will become permanent.

Those efforts and others in the industry come as regulators finalize rules that will soon require restaurants with 20 or more locations to disclose calorie counts on menus and drive-thrus, regulations that were part of the 2010 health care overhaul. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue the final requirements by the end of this year.

Most major fast-food restaurants already are promoting lighter alternatives, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm.

Corner Bakery highlights “Corner Combos under 600,” while Potbelly’s showcases lighter Skinny sandwiches. Chains such as Au Bon Pain and Subway have calorie and nutritional information displayed.

“There’s a push by those chains that have a healthier menu or lower calories on their menu to put those items out proactively,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm.

That means figuring out ways to have menu offerings for everyone, from hamburgers for those who want to indulge to fresh green salads for those who don’t.

“A lot of people still think of McDonald’s as fast food, and they are doing their part to provide the right items … to create balance and variety,” Tristano said. The underlying strategy is to get very health-oriented consumers to recognize McDonald’s as a good-for-you restaurant and to go with frequency, he added.

Still, most consumers have no idea how many calories are in their food choices when they dine in restaurants, nor do all want that, experts say. When consumers eat out, they want to indulge and leave concerns about which foods are low fat, low calorie and low sodium at home, Riggs said.

A study last year by NPD Group found that 9 percent of consumers look for healthy, light options when eating out at restaurants, and that number has remained flat, Riggs said.

“When (consumers) go out to eat, they give themselves more leeway,” she said.

And in tough economic times, price concerns outweigh health concerns when it comes to eating out, Riggs said.

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