McDonald's, the company that "super-sized" America's fast-food meals - and perhaps some Americans, too - was praised by nutritionists, criticized by diners and ridiculed yet again yesterday in the aftermath of its decision to take "Super Size" french fries and soft drinks off the menu.
Bringing an end to a concept that the fast-food giant started in the 1990s - one that became as ingrained in pop culture as "Have it your way" and "Where's the beef?" - the company confirmed what it had outlined months earlier in a memo:
Super Size fries and drinks will be phased out at the more than 13,000 McDonald's restaurants across the country by the end of the year.
It's hardly an earth-shattering development; the difference between McDonald's Super Size fries and its large size is a paltry 0.8 ounces. Even if you eat them daily and make the switch, you would save only 7 pounds over a year.
But taken with other changes - from introducing entree salads last year to its plans to serve 1 percent fat milk instead of 2 percent - the end of super-sizing represents a substantial shift in the company's menu and another step in its continuing effort to project a more healthy image.
Not that the true McDonald's junkie cares much about that.
"If I wanted to eat healthy, I wouldn't be here in the first place," said Billy Layton, a 26-year-old teacher having lunch at a McDonald's on Falls Road in Hampden.
Though Layton rarely super-sizes his meals, he doesn't like losing that option. "I don't like other people making decisions for me," he said.
Pressure and ridicule
McDonald's and, to a lesser extent, other fast-food chains have been under increasing pressure to give consumers healthier offerings. McDonald's was sued, unsuccessfully, last year by a group of New York teen-agers who blamed the chain for their obesity.
It was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock chronicled his deteriorating health during a month in which he ate only McDonald's food.
And - as the nation's largest fast-food chain - it has increasingly become the butt of complaints from nutritional activists and jokes from late-night comedians.
In a statement released today, Spurlock, who gained 25 pounds during his month of eating only at McDonald's, said the decision to drop Super Size items was "a small step in the right direction."
McDonald's spokesman Lisa Howard said phasing out Super Size fries was not connected to the film - but was driven by "menu simplification" and aimed at increasing efficiency.
The menu changes, which Howard said started taking effect late last year, come on the heels of McDonald's "Eat Smart, Be Active" campaign. The initiative, launched under the new chief executive officer, Jim Cantalupo, was seen as an effort to revive sales that at the time were stagnant.
Other changes include doing away with 42-ounce Super Size soft drinks, adding bagels to the breakfast menu and switching to milk with 1 percent fat. The Super Size drink might be offered occasionally as a promotional item, Howard said.
Industry analysts and nutritionists praised McDonald's decision.
"McDonald's made a move in the right direction," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"I hope it is an indication that the company is paying more attention to obesity, heart disease and other diet-related diseases."
Jacobson called on other fast-food companies to follow suit and for McDonald's to do more, including posting calorie counts on its menu boards.
"I think it's bold, it's progressive. ... . They're an industry leader acting like an industry leader, acting responsibly," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a food industry research and consulting firm in Chicago.
Although the change is less than an ounce of fries and 10 ounces of soda, Goldin says it has symbolic meaning.
"What McDonald's does is scrutinized and followed by everyone in the industry," he said.
Jerry McVety, president of McVety & Associates, a food industry consulting agency in Michigan, called the move "responsive" and good for public relations.
"In the scheme of things, it's more press than anything else," he said.
While most fast food chains are touting healthier menus - from salads to wraps to low-carb offerings - McDonald's chief competitors, Burger King and Wendy's, say they have no plans at the moment to stop serving extra-large portions.
"We have been reviewing our 'King' size options, but we haven't made any decisions," said Michelle Miguelz, a spokesman for Burger King.
Wendy's also offers a 7-ounce "Biggie" fries, and spokesman Bob Bertini said his company expects to continue to do so.
He had no comment on McDonald's decision, other than to say "they're moving closer to where we've been for some time."
French fries will still come in a choice of sizes at McDonald's - small (2.4 ounces, 210 calories), medium (5.2 ounces, 450 calories) and large (6.2 ounces, 540 calories).
Gone, though, will be Super Size fries, which weigh in at 7 ounces and contain 610 calories and a whopping 29 grams of fat, nearly three times the fat of a small order.
Super Size fries have 70 more calories and a Super Size Coke has 100 more calories than large servings.
"We think it's a positive step to getting back to normal portion sizes," says Suzanne Anderson, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. "I would like to commend McDonald's for actively stepping up and taking responsibility."
Carla Wolper, a researcher at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, pointed out that test after test has shown that people will eat more food if larger portions are put in front of them.
This change at McDonald's "can't be a bad thing," she said. "How much of a good thing it is remains to be seen."
At the McDonald's in Hampden, customers were lined up as usual yesterday, both at the counter and at the drive-through window, where workers regularly ask customers if they want to super-size their orders.
Layton, who teaches at Learning Inc., an alternative school, said he was having his second meal of the day at McDonald's. He had stopped there for breakfast.
"I'm a bachelor," he explained. "I can't be spending an hour making meals."
He said he eats fast-food sandwiches three or four times a week, and usually he has fries with that. "When you get a combo, it only costs about 5 cents more, so basically you're getting free fries. I don't really even like fries, but I get them."
'Too much to eat'
Bruce Ross, on his lunch break with a co-worker, said he eats at McDonald's about once a month.
"I don't super-size. It's too much to eat," he said. "I always get a Big Mac, fries and a soda. I don't know how many calories are in it, but I know it's at least half of what you should consume in an entire day - probably 800 to 1,000."
Two tables over, a husband and wife were splitting a Super Size order of fries and a Super Size drink, something they said they do regularly to save money.
They, like several others, complained that the company, with its push toward healthier alternatives, was overlooking its core clientele.
"People super-size all the time," said LaTasha Anderson, a manager at the Hampden McDonald's. She said she hadn't heard of the plan to stop super-sizing.
A mile up the street, at another Falls Road McDonalds, employees hadn't heard of the phase-out either, but customer Angel Ruzicka had.
"I think they're trying to be more healthy," said Ruzicka, who, though she avoids super-sizing, does enjoy fast food occasionally. "You can't just sit there and chomp on carrot sticks all your life."