NEW YORK — McDonald's Corp. is adding apples to all its Happy Meals and launching a nutrition-focused mobile phone app as part of a broader health push.
The changes underscore how the restaurant industry is reacting to the demands of customers and regulators who blame it for health ills ranging from childhood obesity to diabetes.
Among other changes in McDonald's new program:
— McDonald's pledged to reduce sugars, saturated fats and calories through "varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations" by 2020. It didn't give details. By 2015, it will reduce sodium by 15 percent.
— McDonald's will introduce a new mobile app focused just on nutrition information.
— McDonald's USA president Jan Fields and other executives will go on a "listening tour" in August to hear suggestions from parents and nutrition experts. The chain will also launch a new online forum for parents.
McDonald's says the new directives are "absolutely not" related to impending regulations that will force the industry to curb the marketing of junk food to children and post nutrition information on menus.
Rather, the changes are a response to what customers were asking for, said Cindy Goody, McDonald's senior director of nutrition.
"We've been in the nutrition game for over 30 years in providing nutrition information to our customers," Goody said. "Now what we're doing is we're adding more food groups and ... creating nutritional awareness."
The nutrition talk also has helped McDonald's grab business from other fast-food restaurants, even as the recession forced people to cut back on eating out.
McDonald's has worked to paint itself as a healthy, hip place to eat, offering wireless access in restaurants and introducing smoothies and oatmeal, moves that other fast-food companies are now trying to replicate.
For Happy Meals, U.S. customers can already choose between apples or fries. But only about 11 percent of customers were ordering apples, the restaurant said.
So by the beginning of next year, McDonald's will instead include a half-order of apples and a half-order of fries. Customers can get all fries or all apples if they ask.
Goody said the change is indicative of "incremental lifestyle modifications." Asked why McDonald's didn't eliminate fries, she said that "all foods fit when consumed in moderation."
This isn't the first time the world's largest burger chain has tried to paint itself as an emissary of nutrition. In the '80s it created a fitness program for middle schoolers featuring gymnast Mary Lou Retton. A decade ago, McDonald's used spokesclown Ronald McDonald to encourage parents to get their children immunized and to tell kids to drink milk. In 2004, McDonald's christened Ronald a "balanced, active lifestyles ambassador" and passed out pedometers to encourage exercise.