McDonald's drops grilled cheese from Happy Meals for 'nutrition' reasons, keeps less healthy cheeseburger

Eleven years after introducing grilled cheese sandwiches as a vegetarian option in Happy Meals, McDonald’s Canada has pulled the item from its menu in the name of nutrition. But protesting parents point out the less healthy cheeseburger remains.

Grilled cheese wasn't a hot seller — appealing to only 5 per cent of Happy Meal customers

A Happy Meal — with chocolate milk, a cheeseburger and fries — is arranged for a photo at a McDonald's restaurant in Brandon, Miss. McDonald's Canada has done away with the grilled cheese option for its Happy Meals, but kept the less healthy cheeseburger. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

Ronald McDonald has some explaining to do. Eleven years after introducing grilled cheese sandwiches as a vegetarian option in its Happy Meals, McDonald's Canada has pulled the item from its menu.

The restaurant chain has told a number of parents, who were protesting on social media, that it retired the cheesy sandwich to make way for healthier options — part of its recent, global pledge to clean up Happy Meals.

However, the cheeseburger Happy Meal entree — which is less healthy according to McDonald's own data — remains on the menu. So does the crispy chicken wrap, even though its nutritional profile is comparable to the grilled cheese sandwich.

"It's ridiculous," said Toronto parent Layla Moola, who always ordered the grilled cheese for her son because her family only eats Halal meat.

She points out that the cheeseburger is higher in both sodium and calories. "It doesn't make sense."

Alex Taylor, 6, of Corner Brook, Nfld., dining on a McDonald's grilled cheese sandwich. (Submitted by Richard Taylor)

Turns out, there's also a financial aspect to McDonald's decision. The company told CBC News the grilled cheese was the least popular Happy Meal entree, chosen just five per cent of the time. 

Moola wishes that detail had also been passed on to inquiring parents like herself who only received the nutrition explanation. 

"Parents are smart and savvy, so give them the real reason. I think people would appreciate it more," she said. 

Healthier Happy Meals

Earlier this year, McDonald's announced new global nutrition targets "so parents can feel good" about the Happy Meal menu. The goal: By 2022, at least 50 per cent of Happy Meals offered will meet strict limits for calorie, saturated fat and sugar content.

McDonald's got the ball rolling in the U.S. in February by pulling the cheeseburger and chocolate milk from its Happy Meal menu. The grilled cheese was never offered in the U.S.

"We had to make choices. The Grilled Cheese Happy Meal did not meet the new nutrition criteria," said McDonald's Canada spokesperson Kristen Hunter in an email. She didn't have anything to say about remaining entree options — such as the cheeseburger — which also fail to meet the criteria. 

Food industry expert Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University specializing in food distribution and policy, says efficiency and profits remain the main mission for any fast food chain.

"It's nice for a company to say, 'Well, let's start making healthy foods now,' but at the end of the day, it has to make business sense," said Charlebois.

"They're basically killing a loser," he said about the grilled cheese sandwich, because it had slow sales. "If the grilled cheese was a winner and sales were significant, I suspect they would have done more work actually to keep it on the menu."

Meatless cheeseburger?

Richard Taylor in Corner Brook, Nfld., says McDonald's will lose business from families like his who chose the restaurant because the grilled cheese sandwich worked for their kids.

Taylor's seven-year-old son, Alex, is autistic and he says the menu item was one of the few restaurant foods his son would eat.

"For me, it's a huge deal," said Taylor. "It kind of made me upset — emotional — because that was his thing."

The McDonald's grilled cheese sandwich was made by melting a piece of cheese between two middle layers of a Big Mac bun. (CB12 Reviews)

Hunter, the spokesperson, said McDonald's is exploring other Happy Meal options "to meet the needs of our guests."

The company told Taylor he could order the cheeseburger without the meat as a Happy Meal entree, but he's sceptical it will pass the test.

"It's not the same."

Caroline Morra of Toronto, who is a vegetarian, has already decided the meatless cheeseburger doesn't cut it. She ordered the item for herself and her three-year-old daughter this week, after learning grilled cheese was off the menu.

Caroline Morra, who is a vegetarian, and her three-year-old daughter were big fans of the grilled cheese sandwiches. (submitted by Caroline Morra)

Her beefs? She says it wasn't grilled, so the cheese didn't melt, and the hamburger bun was too big; previously, the item was made with the thinner bun used in the middle of a Big Mac.

Morra says ordering the item reminded her of going to McDonald's as a child.

"My mum and I, as vegetarians, would have to order the cheeseburger with no meat or toppings if we wanted a sandwich. So I feel they have gone backwards with their menu instead of forwards."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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