For many Americans, McDonald’s is synonymous with fattening, unhealthy foods. However, chef Jessica Foust wants to change all that.
Foust is a corporate chef and registered dietitian at McDonald’s. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales University, she’s part of the team that crafts the menu that the fast-food chain’s millions of customers consume.
As someone with a background both in nutrition and cuisine, Foust says she joined McDonald’s because she wanted to find a way to broadly impact American eaters.
“A lot of people have assumptions about what McDonald’s food is,” she told Business Insider. “The industry in general is challenged because there’s a stigma in general about what [quick-service restaurant] food is, and that is very very unfortunate. Personally, I don’t think that helps people eat well.”
McDonald’s has come under fire in the past for everything from the use of preservatives to calorie-laden supersized meals. However, in recent years, the fast-food chain has tried to turn over a new leaf and change its reputation.
It hasn’t always been easy. Historically, healthier options like salads and wraps have bombed at the chain, providing customers don’t always want to eat as healthily as they claim. However, Foust says she’s seeing progress — and pushing that progress forward.
Here’s how a chef at McDonald’s believes she’s pushing nutrition at the biggest fast-food chain in the world.
1. Listening to customers’ definitions of health
Often, fast-food chain’s attempts to be “healthy” don’t line up with what customers actually want when it comes to nutrition.
Take wraps, for example. In 2013, McWraps were introduced for customers seeking healthier options. In April, the chain cut the line from the menu, as it became clear customers’ understanding of health had evolved.
A similar transition came about in the salad category. In June, the chain switched to a new salad blend that includes red leaf lettuce and carrot curls. The change came after listening to customers’ demands for a different kind of healthy option.
“They didn’t feel iceberg lettuce was a nutritious green, and they didn’t feel good about eating it in a salad,” says Foust.
2. Going back to the basics
“One of the thing that our team is most proud of recently is our transition to butter,” says Foust. “Looking at our core menu and going back to basics, going back to the original.”
When McDonald’s switched from margarine to butter in making McMuffins, it quickly doubled sales, executives said in October 2015. The swap represented McDonald’s recent guiding focus: making changes that fit with consumers’ desire for “real” and “genuine” food (such as real eggs, instead of egg patties), without ignoring the importance of taste. Instead of cutting calories, the chain managed to double sales by returning to the original, tastier option.
3. Adding options
McDonald’s is — and probably always will be — best known for its burgers and fries. However, that’s not always a good thing for the chain.
“The biggest thing I think people don’t know is, because we have such iconic items, is that our customers can customise anything they want,” says Foust. “I think people just don’t know that that’s available to them.”
One of the easiest ways to make a fast-food order healthier is through customisation, whether that’s holding the cheese or swapping fries for fruit. McDonald’s has a number of reasonably healthy options on the menu, including salads, apple slices, and grilled chicken sandwiches. However, because that’s not what people associate with the chain, they’re less likely to order these — something Foust is trying to change.
4. Cutting certain choices
While Foust says that adding more options is the driving force behind building a more nutritious McDonald’s menu, there was one situation when cutting down on choice lead to a major change.
When McDonald’s added apples to the kids’ menu in 2004, customers had the choice between fries or apples. While originally the chain believed this would help customers make healthier choices, they found that instead, it was causing unexpected issues.
“What we had learned from our customers was that they didn’t want to have to fight with their kids about choosing apples or fries,” says Foust.
So, in 2011, the company changed its policy to have all kids’ meals include apples and (fewer) fries. It was a transition sparked by criticism by some advocates for children’s health, as well as one that highlighted how difficult making big changes can be for a chain as large as McDonald’s.
“While that sounds like an easy thing to do, when we started looking at how many apples we would need to support that promotion, we had to plan three years out,” says Foust.
5. Going local
“We have become much more nimble,” says Foust. “The best innovators are open to exploring ideas outside of their own. We’re getting ideas every day, from our customers, from our operators, from our suppliers.”
Local tests allow McDonald’s to make changes more quickly, figuring out which health trends are fads and which represent a changing understanding of nutrition. It also brings new opportunities for McDonald’s chefs — a role that Foust believe many misunderstand.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand what a chef does for McDonald’s… I think some of my family friends probably think they would find me in the drive-thru,” she says. “What we as chefs…are trying to make sure at the heart of our business, we maintain a focus on our food. Food is number one. Our primary role is that we bring people back to that.”
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