McDonald’s to remove preservatives, corn syrup from some menu items

Could new menu tweaks keep the world’s biggest burger chain competitive?

Alan Diaz/AP
This June 28, 2016, photo shows a McDonald's sign in Miami. Already, the emergence of smaller rivals promising more wholesome alternatives has major restaurant chains scrambling to improve the image of their food.

To compete with smaller restaurant chains, McDonald’s is learning from them.

The fast food giant will do away with artificial preservatives in some menu items, according to an announcement on Monday. It will also remove corn syrup from burger buns, opting instead for natural sugar. The changes are a nod to customers who are putting more stock into ingredient sourcing and quality as they choose where to dine out.

“Why go to the position of trying to defend them, if the consumer is saying, I prefer not to have that particular ingredient in my food?” said Mike Andres, president of McDonald's USA, during a company event, the Associated Press reported.

McDonald’s has acquired something of an image problem in recent years. Large-chain fast food is increasingly perceived as unhealthy and overly-processed. Smaller chains, such as Chipotle and Five Guys, have pounced on the opportunity to emphasize their own “natural” or locally-sourced ingredients.

As a result, McDonald’s stocks have behaved erratically. Between 2013 and 2015, MCD shares dropped 7 percent. In September, the company rolled out its all-day breakfast menu and induced a 17 percent jump. Last week, however, MCD fell 3 percent in the wake of lackluster US sales.

In a bid to improve sales, McDonald’s is attempting to revamp its menu. Last year, the chain added spinach and kale to salads and swapped margarine for butter in some items. Now, in an attempt to win over more health-conscious customers, it promises to ditch preservatives in chicken nuggets and remove corn syrup from its burger buns.

But the chain’s latest initiative may have more to do with perception than with actual health concerns. Excessive calories – not preservatives or corn syrup – are where fast food chains fail, Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Associated Press.

A shift in strategy

The ingredient changes announced Monday are the latest in a series of changes McDonald's has made to better compete with its smaller rivals on the quality front. In September, the chain announced that it would switch to cage-free eggs over the next ten years. In 2015, McDonald’s Australia tested a “gourmet breakfast” menu in an attempt to elevate public perception. The menu, which included premium items like chipolata sausage and Belgian waffles, heralded in the chain’s new prioritization of food quality over speed.

“Operational efficiency has actually moved down in the ranks of priority because we want to focus most of all on the food,” Lance Richards, vice president of menu strategy, told the Chicago Tribune in January. “There’s an openness to really going after the consumer that’s so refreshing. I think there’s some bright days ahead.”

This story includes material from the Associated Press.

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