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Nutrition

A healthier Happy Meal? McDonald's axing high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives from menu items

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McDonald's is cleaning up its act. (AP File Photo)

McDonald's, which is trying to shake its image for serving processed junk food, said Monday it's eliminating some unpalatable ingredients from its most popular menu items.

That includes making Chicken McNuggets and other items without artificial preservatives, and removing high-fructose corn syrup from its burger buns. McDonald's did not immediately respond when asked about which specific preservatives are being removed.

The changes come as the world's biggest burger chain fights to win back customers after three straight years of declining guest counts at its established U.S. locations. Major restaurant chains are scrambling to step up the image of their food as they face more competition from smaller rivals promising more wholesome alternatives.

How meaningful the changes may be to customers remains to be seen.

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the changes by McDonald's don't seem to address the big picture problem with restaurant food - the overabundance of calories. For instance, he said swapping out high-fructose for sugar doesn't make burger buns any healthier.

In the past year and a half, McDonald's has also said it switched to butter from margarine for its Egg McMuffins and changed its salad to include kale and spinach. Its rivals have made changes as well.

Dunkin' Donuts, for instance, has promised to put more egg in its egg patty. Currently, the patty looks like a fried egg but is a composite of ingredients including egg whites, water, egg yolks and modified corn starch. As part of its own push to remove artificial ingredients, Taco Bell has said it would switch to actual black pepper rather than "black pepper flavor."

Subway has also introduced a "rotisserie chicken" and "carved turkey" that have more texture and look more natural than its regular chicken strips and turkey. It's offering both versions to avoid alienating fans who might not want any changes.

But convincing people it serves wholesome food is particularly important for McDonald's, which has long courted families with its Happy Meals.

The company's sales in its flagship U.S. market have showed improvement in recent quarters, helped by the fanfare over the introduction of an all-day breakfast menu in October. In the most recent quarter, though, McDonald's said sales edged up just 1.8 percent at established locations, boosted by higher pricing as people opted for items that cost more. That signaled that any excitement from all-day Egg McMuffins could already be losing steam.

McDonald's had signaled that tweaks to its menu were in store, telling investors during a presentation in late 2014 that it was evaluating its cooking procedures and ingredients as part of its push to fix its struggling businesses.

"We need to think about our ingredient labels as being much smaller," said Mike Andres, head of McDonald's U.S., at the time.

The latest changes were announced at an event about the company's "food journey" at its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Reporters there posted images of "breakfast bowls" and other new items the company is testing. And a McDonald's chef demonstrated making Egg McMuffins with freshly cracked eggs - a point the company has been trying to emphasize in advertising to convey the message that it serves real food.