NEW YORK – With Americans fattening up and fast food on the defense, McDonald's (MCD) this week began telling dieters in the New York area how much fat and carbs are in some of its meals.
New posters and brochures, prominently displayed in restaurants in New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut, tell customers how to modify McDonald's existing menu -- by leaving out the bun or cheese, for example -- to reduce their intake of fat, carbohydrates and calories.
The fast food industry has been under pressure by consumer groups and the government to provide more nutritional information about their food. McDonald's and a few others have previously made calorie count brochures available.
Jeff Cronin, a spokesman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (search), called McDonald's new initiative "a step in the right direction."
But he said "if McDonald's really wants to give consumers good information about their choices, they would at least put calorie counts on menu boards right alongside the price, where consumers could see them at the point of decision-making."
Legislation pending in the New York State Assembly and Congress would require fast food chains to put calorie counts on menu boards, and would make table service chains list calories, saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates and sodium counts on printed menus, Cronin said.
The new Real Life Choices (search) program was developed by nutritionist Pam Smith, author of "Eat Well, Live Well," in partnership with McDonald's franchisees. It was kicked off Monday at 650 McDonald's in New York City, on Long Island, in most of New Jersey and in Connecticut's Fairfield County.
Real Life Choice selections are created from existing menu items and carry the same price -- even if you tell McDonald's to hold the cheese.
For example, a reduced-fat breakfast of less than 8 grams of fat might be an Egg McMuffin minus the cheese and butter.
For the low-carb dieter, a breakfast with less than 5 grams of carbohydrates could be a platter of double meat or eggs without the English muffin, biscuit or hash browns. For those only counting calories, a breakfast of 300 calories or less could be an Egg McMuffin, a snack-size Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait or scrambled eggs with a plain English muffin.
"I think there are a lot of people who don't know how much fat or calories there are in a sauce or in mayonnaise or in salad dressing, no awareness that ketchup ... adds sugar," Smith said. "So if you're trying to cut carbs, that would be an example to leave it off."
Diners trying out the Choices approach in the community of Carle Place on Long Island approved.
"I think it's great," said Joseph Randazzo of Valley Stream. "It's always nice to know what you're eating."
Mike Zat of Levittown said the changes might improve the restaurant's reputation.
"McDonald's usually has a fast-food, kind of greasy connotation to the name," he said. "I guess it opens new ideas for people. Maybe they'll see McDonald's in a different light."
Dr. Alan Rulis, senior adviser for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (search) at the Food and Drug Administration (search), said the chain is giving consumers more information. "We encourage that, even if it's an incremental step."
He said the FDA is discussing America's obesity problem and possible solutions with food processors and the restaurant industry. A report on the subject is expected next month.
"People don't go to McDonald's looking for diet food," said Smith, "but what Real Life Choices does is it gives them a chance to have food that will fit within their diet but still with that flavor that they're seeking."
McDonald's is also test-marketing an adult version of its Happy Meal called Go Active. Instead of a burger and a toy, the meal will include a salad and an exercise booklet. Other fast-food chains also have started offering healthier fare. Burger King, the No. 2 hamburger chain, for example, has a new line of low-fat, baguette-style chicken sandwiches.
Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action lawsuits blaming McDonald's for making people fat.