McDonald’s gave up pretending to be healthy this year — but items like salads and wraps won’t be gone from its menu forever

Is it possible to eat healthy at McDonald’s in 2020? Irene Jiang / Business Insider

In 2020, McDonald’s gave up pretending to be healthy.

The McWrap disappeared back in 2016. Then, in late March, McDonald’s announced it was slashing less popular menu items, including salads, grilled chicken, and yogurt. The change was supposed to be a temporary move during the pandemic, but nine months later the “healthy” items have not returned.

“I’m trying hard to lose weight and there are days we have a busy schedule where take out is a must,” Rachel Fleck, a mother of four from Tiffin, Ohio, told Business Insider. “There is no form of chicken unless it’s battered and fried and no salads.”

Fleck said she has been going to McDonald’s less frequently since the healthy menu items have disappeared, instead visiting Subway or Wendy’s.

However, Fleck seems to be in the minority. McDonald’s same-store sales increased 4.6% in the most recent quarter, as analysts celebrate the chain’s success.

Read more:
McDonald’s is the chain most likely to thrive in the months and years to come as restaurants scramble to recover from the pandemic, analysts say

Why McDonald’s healthy menu items disappeared

Mcdonalds wrap
Asian crispy McWrap were tested back in 2014. They didn’t survive on the menu for long. Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The reason McDonald’s nixed its “healthy” menu items is pretty straightforward: They were just never all that popular.

McDonald’s added salads to the menu in the late ’80s, after rivals like Wendy’s and Burger King were already serving the menu item. Salads and other healthy options typically serve as a counter to the “veto vote,” or an option for people — like Fleck — who would otherwise block a trip to McDonald’s if they couldn’t order a vegetarian or more nutritious meal.

But, salads have never been top sellers or as profitable as other menu items. To make matters worse, preparing salads slows down workers, making drive-thru wait times longer — a huge problem during the pandemic, as the drive-thru now makes up the vast majority of McDonald’s business.

“McDonald’s is a business with one primary goal: to generate profits for shareholders,” Marion Nestle, a professor of food policy and nutrition at New York University, told Business Insider. “It is not interested in producing foods that do not sell or bring people into outlets.”

Killing salads and other less-popular, healthy items has helped McDonald’s speed up drive-thru times by nearly 30 seconds over the past year, Restaurant Dive reported, citing a SeeLevel HX study. Franchisees have embraced the simplified menu, refusing to allow the items back on the menu or reintroduce All Day Breakfast.

“Keeping our menus simplified is your NOA’s No. 1 priority,” an independent group of McDonald’s franchisees called the National Owners Association wrote in an internal memo viewed by Business Insider in June.

Health priorities have shifted in recent years

Mcdonalds grilled chicken
Grilled chicken has disappeared in 2020. McDonald’s

Even before the pandemic, the restaurant industry has been shifting its focus away from calorie counts and towards topics such as quality and “clean eating.”

In recent years, McDonald’s press releases have focused more on food sourcing, cutting artificial ingredients, and antibiotic-free meat than nutritional information such as calories, fat, and sodium.

“We are helping to create a future of quality and secure food sourced in a responsible way, because how our food is produced and where it comes from matter to our customers, communities and the environment,” CEO Chris Kempczinski wrote in the company’s 2020 Purpose & Impact Summary Report.

Nutrition is still key when it comes to McDonald’s Happy Meal. Fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy remain a major focus, with McDonald’s continuing to revamp options to be even healthier. Even when salads disappeared, McDonald’s kept apple slices on the menu for the kids’ meals.

“I don’t care whether McDonald’s has healthy options or not (except for kids meals which I think should be healthy by default),” public health expert Nestle said.

Instead, Nestle said that if people are worried about public health in 2020, they should focus on universal basic income, universal health care, universal school meals, price supports for fruits and vegetables — not McDonald’s salads.

The salads will come back, and a new era of fast-food nutrition will begin

McDonald's southwest salad 5
Some day McDonald’s salads will return. Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Just because the restaurant industry is more focused on “clean food” right now does not mean that traditionally healthy options will never return to McDonald’s.

“We’re not always going to be in a period where the the dining room is locked up,” said John Gordon, a restaurant analyst with Pacific Management Consulting Group.

When McDonald’s is less focused on drive-thru, it will need to rebuild its dining room business — which requires salads and other healthy options, and make speed less important. If McDonald’s doesn’t reintroduce healthy menu items, Gordon said, it will end up losing business to rivals. Ultimately, a speedy drive-thru cannot serve as a replacement for nutritious menu items.

“We will eventually be through this era. We will live our way through it,” Gordon said. “At that point in time, salads will be appropriate.”

McDonald’s declined to comment on if its salads and other healthy menu items would return to menus. However, the company seemed to hint that menu items could return in a new form, saying that McDonald’s is still actively exploring opportunities to bring back missing menu items in new ways.

“With customers at the centre of everything we do, we’ll continue listening to them and evolving our menu to meet their needs,” McDonald’s said.