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Q&A: McDonald’s Nutrition Manager Julia Braun

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At the McDonald’s First Taste Event last month, I spoke with Julia Braun, MPH, a registered dietician and also the Nutrition Manager for McDonald’s.



What does the role of Nutrition Manager entail?
My job is to integrate nutritional science expertise into whatever we do at McDonald’s. Working with the culinary and product development team to provide nutrition guidance as they look at new menu products. I sit alongside with chefs as they are thinking up new items and coach them on proper portion size. Guide them in the right direction if there are concerns about nutrients like fat and sodium that we want to be sensitive to. I guide them with suggestions for recommended food groups, getting more fruits and vegetables and whole grains into the menu items. Oatmeal is a perfect example where they partnered to create a delicious product that also has a lot of great nutrient aspects to it.

What is the process for working on a new item?
The process starts at early phases in the kitchen. Chefs are working on oatmeal, for example, and want to create an oatmeal concept. They start with taste – What do we want the product to taste like? What will resonate with the customers. Then I theoretically calculate what the nutrition information should be and we talk about it. Is this the right amount of calories? Are we providing significant amount of fruit or whole grain? If not, can we bump up the fruit? Take down the fat? It’s definitely a work in progress where they compromise to make sure there’s great taste and also best nutrition we possibly can provide. Once they have a product that they both agree, they take it to the customer with focus groups, often several times to make sure customers will like it.

How long does the process usually take?
The process is at least a year, never less. I think the oatmeal was started 2 years ago. Some items have been in the works for almost 4 years. The role is to be looking out years and beyond about what can potentially join the menu. Mostly because it’s about building up enough supply. It’s not just about testing something that people will like, but also making sure there’s enough supply to meet 14,000 restaurants. For example, make sure there’s enough mango to make the mango pineapple smoothie. It takes a lot of time to build that supply.

What is one food item that you had always wanted to introduce into the menu?
Oatmeal. I’ve been with company for 5 years and I really wanted to see whole grain in the menu. Oatmeal was like a dream come true, to see such a wholesome item to finally be added to the breakfast menu. Can’t get much better than oatmeal.

What is one thing that needs to be improved in terms of McDonald’s and nutrition?
Everything that we do, I feel like it’s a balance. We provide feedback on everything from portion size to calories to sodium. I don’t know if there’s just one thing. We can continue to look at portion size as a key way to help people manage their weight. Like with the snack size McFlurry – offering smaller portions of very tasty milk shakes so that we can enjoy them in moderate amount.

How does McDonald’s accommodate people with special dietary needs?
We provide full disclosure of ingredients on website. So you can read every single ingredient in every single item. We aim to feed the masses, so it’s hard to tailor to any specific diet. But a lot of items can be customized, so that you can get them without dairy or without meat or whatever preferences. As population evolves, we will stay in tuned with the needs of the customers – vegetarian options, gluten-free options,… We monitor what the biggest demands are and stay on track. For example, oatmeal can be dairy-free. You can ask for no cream. We want to make items customized so that it can satisfied as many customers as possible. Almost everything on the menu can be customized.

What did you do before you came to McDonald’s? What got you into McDonald’s?
I have a background in public health nutrition. I was working in a public health department, teaching classes on weight loss and working with mothers and children on proper nutrition. I learned that a lot of people bought the food that they love and didn’t know how to balance what they love and what they need. There’s a lot of bad rep on restaurants and I thought that was unfair. I saw that people have choices and need to learn how to eat at places that they love. So I decided to looked into opportunities in the food industry. I have always loved McDonald’s, always eaten there, and felt good about it. I wanted to understand more about what they were doing as a company, and what I can do to help to move them along the right direction. It was a great opportunity. Some people haven’t been in the (McDonald’s) restaurants for a long time and people don’t know that the menu is evolving and the company is changing. McDonald’s is more than just burgers and fries.

What would you order at McDonald’s?
I order everything at McDonald’s. I really lean on the salads regularly because they provide three cups of vegetables, that’s a day’s worth of vegetables in one salad. I often have the Southwest salad, or the Asian salad. I love the egg muffin. Love oatmeal. Small fries, for a special treat, or the Angus snack wrap. Those are some of the ones I eat most regularly and I rotate in favorite items like fries and the Angus, once in a while.

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