McDonald’s says unbundled Happy Meals lower sugared-soda sales to kids

McDonald's says fewer people are picking soda for Happy Meals after it stopped listing the drinks as an option on its menu boards.

The world's biggest hamburger chain said Thursday 48 percent of Happy Meals orders chose soda as a beverage in the U.S. after it was scrubbed from menus and marketing materials between July of last year and May. That's down from 56 percent in the year-ago period.

“I would expect that this would continue to go down,” said Julia Braun, director of nutrition at McDonald's.

The results were noted in a report commissioned by McDonald's Corp. to track its progress on a pledge made in late 2013 with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

The pledge is part of a push by McDonald's to quiet critics who say it serves junk food and peddles unhealthy choices to children. Shaking that reputation is particularly important for McDonald's, whose courtship of parents and children over the decades helped make it an industry leader.

Burger King and Wendy's have also said they would stop featuring sodas as an option for kids' meals on menu boards after advocacy groups called for the change. Representatives for both chains declined to provide details on how the moves have changed soda sales.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the decline in sodas for Happy Meals showed promise.

“It takes more than one year to undo decades of bad marketing,” she said.

McDonald's did not provide historical data on the share of Happy Meals orders that included soda in past years, which might indicate the popularity of the drink had been fading on its own. But prior to the change, it said the percentage of Happy Meals with soda had been holding steady for at least 18 months.

As for changing the drinking habits of adults, McDonald's doesn't plan to stop featuring Coke drinks for its extra value meals. But as part of its pledge with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, it said it would offer side salads, vegetables or fruit as an alternative to fries in 20 major markets by 2020.

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