Michael Goldblatt probably would have fallen out of the family station wagon if anyone had told him that he'd get paid to eat McDonald's hamburgers when he grew up. As a boy, he'd gobble up burgers six at a time in the back seat, encouraged by one of those mothers who thought world starvation would somehow be solved if her son ate more. Goldblatt's voracious appetite hasn't changed much _ he can still wolf down three Big Macs for lunch _ but now the 37-year-old is in the driver's seat at McDonald's. He's director of nutrition and product development for the world's largest fast-food chain.
"McDonald's has a nutritionist?" That's what Goldblatt says customers ask when he introduces himself at McDonald's restaurants. His reply: "Absolutely!"
While the job title may sound like an oxymoron, Goldblatt may be one of the most influential nutritionists the world has ever known, as Forbes magazine wrote in 1988. He may, in fact, be the most.
Nobody feeds more people more often than McDonald's. Worldwide, 250 people in 52 countries pass under the golden arches every second. That's 22-million people a day.
As Goldblatt says, "I can't think of anybody else in the world who enjoys the kind of latitude to make meaningful, substantive changes in the way Americans and the world eats."
Nevertheless, the choices McDonald's and other fast-food companies are making these days are coming under increasing scrutiny. In April, McDonald's was lambasted in full-page newspaper ads by Nebraska millionaire Phil Sokolof for "poisoning America" with its hamburgers.
At the same time, during a period of slow growth, fast-food restaurants are turning to nutrition as a way to compete. Hardees announced it was rolling out The Lean 1, which it claims is the lowest-fat quarter-pound hamburger offered by any national fast-food chain. McDonald's began providing nutrition information on posters and tray liners in all of its 8,200 U.S. outlets.
Meanwhile, at Hamburger University, McDonald's corporate offices and training center near Chicago, chef Rene Arend was preparing a tasting of new products: pizza and grilled-chicken sandwiches (which are still in test marketing and not available in the Tampa Bay area) and low-fat milk shakes and low-fat frozen yogurt and orange sorbet (all of which are now on most menus, although Tampa Bay McDonald's have decided to serve chocolate yogurt instead of the orange sorbet). Goldblatt comes up with the ideas; Arend comes up with the recipes.
Inside the glass-enclosed test kitchen, over slices of McDonald's test-market pizza, Goldblatt explained how he formulated the product with nutrition in mind. At first, the pizza was rolled out with whole-milk mozzarella because taste panels overwhelmingly preferred it. After the flavor and texture were perfected, part-skim mozzarella was substituted. The sausage chosen for the topping is a lower-fat version.
During the round of grilled-chicken sandwiches, Goldblatt explained some of the considerations. Would people like more tomatoes? What kind of dressing? Do we want a whole breast?
In his capacity as director of nutrition and product development, Goldblatt says he has learned that "you cannot sell nutritious food if it doesn't taste good." He can do anything he wants to the menu except change the taste of existing products.
Take, for example, the milkshakes. A few years ago, he attempted a reformulation. "We took out the fat, and we didn't match the flavor," he says. They were rejected by management. So he went back to the drawing board and reformulated again. McDonald's introduced low-fat milkshakes nationwide in May.
Goldblatt says McDonald's has been trying for years with "absolutely zippo success" to replace the mixture of vegetable oil and beef tallow it uses to fry its french fries with all-vegetable oil. With some changes in processing, the chain is testing french fries in 100 percent vegetable oil in 500 restaurants. The jury is still out.
What all this means is that it is far easier for Goldblatt to create new products than to change or replace existing ones.
The only way, for example, that he could ever take a Big Mac off the menu is if he developed something more popular. "A Big Mac is on McDonald's menu because it is a tremendously successful product," he says.
In recent months, McDonald's has introduced nationwide non-fat apple bran muffins (made by Entenmann's), low-fat frozen yogurt, orange sorbet ("one of the attempts to put fruit on the menu," he says seriously), and it is test-marketing pasta salads, entrees and carrot and celery sticks (pasta and vegetable sticks have not been introduced in the Tampa region). Goldblatt notes that McDonald's is exploring the serving of fresh fruit but is trying to overcome the problem of inconsistent deliveries by local suppliers.
With the test marketing of lasagna and fettuccine with marinara and Alfredo sauce, McDonald's is attempting to gain in dinner-market share, the fast-food restaurant's most sluggish mealtime. "We own breakfast, and we own lunch," Goldblatt says. "And it's my intent that we will own dinner."
Not only can it take McDonald's a long time to get a reformulated or new product to its taste specifications, but the distribution and supply system has to be in place before a product can go nationwide. McDonald's shopping list is so enormous that any changes or additions to its menu can cause massive shifts in the food supply.
The chain is one of the largest buyers of dairy and beef products in the United States and uses 2-million pounds of potatoes every day and 3,400 tons of sesame seeds a year for its Big Mac buns.
If director of nutrition and product development of McDonald's sounds like an odd combination, so too are Goldblatt's impressive and extensive educational credentials. He studied biochemistry and ancient Greek and Roman history as an undergraduate, has a master's degree in food-science technology, a doctorate in nutrition and a law degree.
While teaching food and drug law at the University of California at Davis, he was tapped by General Foods. The company "basically said, "You have a fascinating background, really interesting, but you need to be educated in the world of business,'
" as Goldblatt recalls. So General Foods hired him as director of consumer nutrition affairs and paid him to learn about the corporate food world.
Then he was hired by McDonald's in 1986. While the fast-food giant had employed nutrition consultants before, this was the first time the position was elevated to such a high level in the corporation, Goldblatt says.
When he first got the job, his peers in the science and nutrition communities asked him how, in good conscience, he could work for McDonald's. Goldblatt dismissed it as one of "the most ignorant" questions. "How could you refuse the challenge?" he asks.
Goldblatt says his biggest frustration is "the cheap shots" people take at McDonald's without understanding its contributions. He truly believes in McDonald's commitment to good nutrition, he says, and that the corporation has reached a happy medium between public health and profitability.
Nutritional improvements have been subtle, he says. For example, McDonald's added calcium to its burger buns, removed the skin from its Chicken McNuggets, switched from fried to baked pies and reduced the sodium in its pickles, hot cakes and breakfast sausages by 30 percent.
Chef Arend is also tinkering with reduced-fat mayonnaise, tartar sauce and Big Mac sauce.
"Because we are so much in the public eye, we are held to a standard that nobody else in the world is held to," Goldblatt says. "There are times when you'd like to say to the world: "Well, I mean, did you ever look at what the rest of the world is offering you?' "