McDonald’s To Stop Super-Sizing

In what sure sounds like a good decision to me, McDonald’s has decided to drop the “super-size” fries and cola menu items this year.

Say goodbye to those super-sized fries — McDonald’s is slimming down its menu.
The hamburger giant has started phasing out its trademark Supersize fries and drinks in its U.S. restaurants as part of an effort to simplify its menu and give customers choices that support a balanced lifestyle, a company spokesman said Tuesday.
By the end of 2004, super size will no longer be available at the nation’s 13,000-plus McDonald’s outlets except in certain promotions, McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker said.
The move comes as the world’s largest restaurant company, and fast-food chains in general, are under growing public pressure to give consumers healthier food options in a nation that has suddenly become aware of its bulging waistline and the health dangers that come with it.

This is great news. McDonald’s is the chain that started the whole super-sizing trend, which led to a dramatic tendency in the whole fast-food industry towards what nutritionists call “portion creep” — increases in serving size that seem small when taken individually, but add up to a whole lot more food. The results have been fairly dramatic, as a look around at the bulging waistlines of Americans should indicate.

Two years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest put together an interesting study entitled “From Wallet to Waistline: The Hidden Costs of Super-Sizing” (PDF) that explicitly looks at the ancillary costs, like increased obesity rates, that have been incurred by the super-sizing (or, as the fast-foodies call it, “value marketing”) trend:

As portion sizes have grown over the past two decades, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among U.S. adults and children also has risen. Obesity is one of the leading public health challenges of our time. Overweight and obesity affect the majority of American adults (61%) (NCCDPHP, 2002). Obesity rates in adults increased by 60% between 1991 and 2000 (Mokdad et al, 2001), and rates doubled in children over the last 20 years (NCHS, 2001).
The negative health consequences of the rising obesity rates already are evident. Rates of diabetes (most of which is type 2, which is largely due to obesity, poor diet, and physical inactivity) rose 50% between 1990 and 2000 (Mokdad et al, 2001). In addition, type 2 diabetes rates are increasing in children. Obesity costs American families, businesses, and governments approximately $117 billion in health-care and related costs each year (US DHHS, 2001)…
Although portion sizes and obesity rates have grown in parallel, larger portions are not, of course, solely responsible for the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. Many factors influence body weight, including levels of physical activity and other dietary factors. However, excess energy intake is a major cause. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) national survey data, Americans’ average daily caloric intake has risen from 1,876 kcal to 2,043 kcal from 1978 to 1995 (Lin et al, 1999). That 167-calorie-per-day increase theoretically works out to an extra 17 pounds of body fat every year (given no change in metabolism or physical activity levels). [My emphasis — JAL]

Now, McDonald’s didn’t start super-sizing for no reason. They did it because it boosts profits like crazy. Fries and cola are high-margin items; it costs them practically nothing to shovel some extra fries into your bag, and if they can charge you an extra quarter for doing so they come out way ahead. So it’s worth taking the time to praise them for being willing to make this decision before any court decision or public pressure campaign forced them to.

However, it’s also worth asking if this means they’re considering stopping or modifying the other, related practice they pioneered that has had a similar effect — “bundling”. This is the tying together of sandwiches, cola and fries into a “Value Meal”, usually at a slightly lower price than if you bought the three items separately. Bundling has a similar economic logic to value marketing (it lets them use those high-margin fries and colas to move the sandwiches faster), but it also has a similar public health effect — people who might otherwise just buy a sandwich end up buying more food than they need because they think they’re getting a “deal”, and once they’ve bought it they feel like they may as well eat it. Combining that with super-sizing meant that consumers were getting truly prodigious servings at the McD’s drive-through — but just cutting the super sizes doesn’t go all the way towards solving the problem. It is, though, a step in the right direction.



March 3, 2004
9:35 am

Great–now maybe they’ll get over their guilt at having high-calorie milkshakes on the menu and actually serve them.


March 3, 2004
2:43 pm

Would you give it up with the milkshakes?