McNuggets quietly get ‘healthier’ reboot in Canada

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https://www.thestar.com/business/2016/08/31/mcnuggets-quietly-get-healthier-reboot-in-canada.htmlThe beloved finger food is now preservative-free, as well as lower in calories and sodium. Like other food giants, McDonald’s chose to keep the makeover on the down-low while the product was rolled out.

It’s a McNugget mystery of sorts — the ultimate blind taste test that has kept Mickey-D fans in the dark.

The world’s largest hamburger chain did a recipe reboot of its most kid-friendly food. It’s now lower in calories and sodium, and McDonald’s Canada introduced it — quietly — a month ago.

If you’ve eaten the mega-popular chicken treat at their 1,400 restaurants across the country in August then you’ve probably already tried the new version, which is free of artificial preservatives and minus the chicken skin that the giant chain used for flavour and binding.

As inventories of the original McNuggets were cleared, most Canadian locations started using the new ones (which are delivered frozen), and over the last two weeks they have been served in all restaurants, the company says.

But if it’s a McHealthier move that will especially please parents, why not shout it from the rooftops of the Golden Arches?

“I think people know we are doing lots with our menu,” said Nicola Pitman, director of menu management at McDonald’s Canada, in an interview with the Star.

“We are evolving our menu to reflect the cares and concerns of the modern day guest,” she said.

Established fast food chains have been scrambling to step up the image of their food amid stiff competition from smaller rivals promising wholesome alternatives.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based burger behemoth said last April that a McNuggets makeover was coming, and then announced their arrival earlier this month in the U.S. Its chicken is also now free of antibiotics a year ahead of schedule.

McDonald’s Canada was a bit more reserved about its rollout. Pitman explained there are slight variations on how McNuggets are made in Canada and other markets, so it’s not a uniform recipe.

In Canada for instance, they removed safflower oil, rosemary, food additive rosemary extract, chicken skin and TBHQ — a synthetic preservative that extends the shelf life of oily foods — from the cooking oil. The process of how they’re made remains the same, including the tempura batter, she said.

The result is about 5-per-cent fewer calories (180 down to 170) and 10-per-cent less sodium (from 330 milligrams to 300) based on a serving of four McNuggets, the company says.

“We did lots of consumer research. Anybody would be hard-pressed to tell the difference,” she said.

Kraft Heinz successfully made a similar move when it announced last March that it had quietly stripped its signature Mac & Cheese dinners of artificial flavours, preservatives and dyes three months earlier from the 79-year-old neon orange noodles — and virtually no one noticed. They sold the same amount as usual over that time.

Others, such as, General Mills have also made stealth moves (they quietly reduced sodium content in Hamburger Helper over six years to 2014) which observers say is intended to combat consumer perceptions that tinkering with a classic recipe would hurt the taste — à la the disastrous New Coke.

“Sometimes the mind is a powerful taste bud,” said Ken Wong, marketing professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

“Tell a child they changed McNuggets and even if the new version tastes good, the child may reject it,” he noted.

You’ll start hearing about the change starting this Labour Day weekend when the company launches a social media blitz to encourage Canadians to try the famous, 33-year-old finger food that hasn’t had a makeover since 2003, when McDonald’s started making them with all-white meat.

Doug Fisher, president of Toronto food service consultancy FHG International, applauds the recent changes since consumers are clamouring to know more about what’s in their food — especially fast food.

“It’s a lot of work for a big chain. It’s not an overnight change,” he said.

McDonald’s Canada plans to stop using chicken treated with antibiotics used by humans by 2018.

Pitman, who oversaw the recipe change, admits there’s “a slightly different flavour” to the new McNuggets. Some say they have a more authentic chicken flavour and crisper, less rubbery texture.

McNugget makeover

Then: 180 calories

Now: 170 calories

Then: 2 g saturated fat

Now: 1.5 g saturated fat

Then: 330 mg sodium

Now: 300 mg sodium

Then: 10 g protein

Now: Same

*per 4 pieces, provided by McDonald’s Canada

McNugget ingredients

Previous ingredients:

• Chicken breast, water, modified corn starch, salt, seasoning (yeast extract, salt, wheat starch) natural flavour (vegetable source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary, natural extractives of rosemary, breaded with: water, wheat flour, yellow corn flour, modified corn starch, spices, salt, baking powder, sodium aluminum phosphate, dextrose, wheat starch, corn starch, cooked in 100-per-cent vegetable oil (canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil (TBHQ), citric acid, dimethylpolysiloxane.

New McNuggets recipe:

• Boneless skinless chicken breast, water, vegetable oil (canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil and hydrogenated soybean oil), wheat flour, yellow corn flour, modified corn starch, rice starch, salt, baking powder, seasoning (wheat starch, yeast extract, salt) natural flavour (vegetable source), spices, canola oil, sodium aluminum phosphate, dextrose, wheat starch, corn starch.

*provided by McDonald’s Canada

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