The complexities of nutrition politics and food marketing are starting to rival those of big tobacco, car producers and the sedentary-inducing entertainment industry. Most recently, McDonald’s has announced a partnership with Weight Watchers, initially in New Zealand, to market healthy choices in all McDonald’s stores. These choices are indeed healthier than the usual Maccas choices, but the new development is they are now endorsed by Weight Watchers NZ.

What is not clear is whether consumers are likely to actually choose these healthier items, or whether having the Weight Watchers co-endorsement on the door brings more customers in the door, and produces a differentially greater increase in the consumption of “less healthy” McDonald’s food items.

Actual sales data are always “commercial in confidence”, so we will never know the truth on this, but in three hypothetical diagrams below we illustrate the possible trends in McDonald’s food sales, and in figures 2 and 3 what the partnership with Weight Watchers might hypothetically do [shown after the arrow]. The status quo (Figure 1 below) shows the healthy options as a small fraction, perhaps around 10% of sales of the less healthy [non-core] options, such as burgers, fries and soft drinks.

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The partnership with Weight Watchers could have a detrimental effect on the population’s diet (Figure 2 below) if the Weight Watchers co-branding brought more people into McDonald’s, and the majority of these consumed “less healthy McDonald’s choices”. Then, over time, the total sales volume would increase, but most of this would be attributable to sales of burgers, fries and soft drink.

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Only in the scenario depicted in Figure 3 (below) would the community have a potential benefit. This scenario shows the proportion of total McDonald’s sales that comprise “healthy choices” increasing relatively faster over time, as a result of the Weight Watchers’ badging.

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We will never know which of these scenarios really occurs, as this information will be considered as “commercial in confidence”, but scenario 2 is commercially advantageous for McDonald’s and potentially, Weight Watchers. In this scenario, McDonald’s will gain in total sales and the financial bottom line. So will our bottom sizes.  The proportion of these sales that are healthy may actually diminish as a result of the Weight Watchers intervention.  Nevertheless, the community perception could be that McDonald’s “cares about healthy nutrition” and is partnering with a credible agency.

From the Weight Watchers perspective, the number of referrals through direct links on tray mats and in McDonald’s stores could boost their bottom line just as much.  Thus the commercial outcomes outweigh the health argument. The latter may just be about creating the perception of corporate social responsibility.

With due acknowledgment, McDonald’s has made real changes to the saturated fat and oils in its cooking, and to the amount of sugar in its bread (sugar added to bread ?! — perhaps it might not have been needed in the first place, other than to habituate the palates of millions to high fat, high sugar foods).

Previously, Maccas has partnered with the Heart Foundation on the Pick the Tick campaign. Many food multinationals have similarly partnered with non-government organisations in other countries.

If only we could see which of scenario 2 or 3 actually occurred in this type of “partnership”, we could understand whether this was in fact improved public health, or just promoting the corporate [and our] bottom line.

*Adrian Bauman, Lesley A King, Louise A Baur are from the Prevention Research Collaboration at the University of Sydney

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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