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By Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru 

The McDonald’s Corporation recently made headlines with its bold decision to eliminate self-serve soda machines from all its restaurants by 2032. For many, this evokes nostalgia for the days of limitless refills and personalized drink mixes. 

I, for one, applaud the decision. My first real job was at a McDonald’s in Belleville, New Jersey, and the position you started in as a trainee was cleaning and filling the soda machine. Those days, the soda machine was behind the counter and was years before self-service became a “thing.” I can tell you firsthand that even though the machine was only used by McDonald’s associates, it was a mess to keep clean. The spouts always had one or two drips that followed the cup being removed, and way too often my fellow Mickey Dees would overfill or remove the cup before they should have, and the splatter pan and grating was always a mess. Now I’m not saying that today, consumers do the same thing — but I’m saying it’s probably worse, and with the labor shortage in fast food restaurants, I doubt they have the staff for proper sanitation!  

That’s only one of the reasons that I’m sure McDonald’s made the decision. The others include the reality of downsizing the dining rooms and automating the drive-thru to be more efficient and robotic. As of June 2023, drive-thru accounted for at least 70% of sales in fast food restaurants. McDonald’s has reported that 40% of all orders are now placed digitally. I would expect to see more fast food restaurants, even those that offer the Coca-Cola freestyle machine, to follow McDonald’s lead. 

For retail dietitians and health professionals, this move speaks to a larger trend in the fast food industry and presents an excellent opportunity for those working in the supermarket sector. 

Let’s dive into what this means for retail registered dietitians. 

1. Reflecting consumer demand for healthier choices 

Over the past few years, consumers have become more conscious of their dietary choices. The gradual shift away from sugary drinks and towards healthier alternatives has been evident. McDonald’s decision in part can be seen as a response to this growing demand for healthier choices as well, and while they have not disclosed the percentage, bottled water is increasingly being promoted and offered at their restaurants. As retail dietitians, this emphasizes the importance of ensuring your supermarkets and grocerants, especially those with self-serve soda machines, are equipped with a diverse range of healthier beverage options, however dispensed or sold, to meet this demand. 

2. Education opportunities 

The removal of self-serve soda machines offers retail dietitians a unique opportunity to educate shoppers. Hosting in-store workshops or informational sessions discussing the health implications of excessive sugary drink consumption can be invaluable and timely to take advantage of McDonald’s announcement. It’s a chance to guide consumers toward healthier beverage choices, explaining the benefits of hydrating with water, herbal teas or unsweetened beverages. 

3. Navigating sugar reduction 

Many consumers may not be aware of the amount of sugar present in a typical serving of soda. With the changes at McDonald’s, retail dietitians can help shoppers understand the significance of limiting sugary beverages and showcase alternative products that offer reduced sugar or are sugar-free. By promoting labels and products that prioritize health without compromising on taste, dietitians can navigate the tricky waters of sugar reduction with their shoppers. 

4. Emphasizing hydration 

With a reduced focus on sodas, the importance of hydration can be highlighted more than ever. Retail dietitians have a chance to promote the benefits of proper hydration. Educate shoppers on the myriad benefits of drinking enough water, such as improved skin health, enhanced digestion and increased energy levels. Offering samples of infused waters, with ingredients like cucumber, mint or berries, can introduce shoppers to flavorful yet healthy alternatives to soda. 

5. Collaborative efforts with brands 

Many beverage companies are also aligning with consumer demand for healthier choices. Brands are launching reduced-calorie, reduced-sugar, plain, flavored and enhanced bottled waters, and even functional beverages that offer additional health benefits. Collaborating with these brands for in-store promotions, tastings and educational sessions can enhance the shopping experience and boost sales. 

6. Tapping into sustainability 

Another angle to consider is the environmental impact. While McDonald’s decision might be rooted in their own motivations, the elimination of self-serve machines also cuts down on potential waste. As retail dietitians, emphasizing the sustainability aspect of choosing beverages with eco-friendly packaging or promoting reusable bottles can resonate with eco-conscious shoppers. 

McDonald’s decision is a testament to the evolving landscape of food and beverage consumption. While some may mourn the loss of the iconic self-serve soda machines, it presents an opportunity for industry professionals, especially retail registered dietitians, to lead the way in promoting healthier and more sustainable beverage choices. 

The supermarket landscape is constantly adapting, and as retail dietitians, staying abreast of such changes and leveraging them for the benefit of shoppers is crucial. As the food industry shifts, it’s up to us to guide consumers, ensuring they have access to the best possible choices for their health and the environment. Let’s raise our glasses (filled with a healthy beverage, of course) to a brighter, healthier future and hope it happens before 2032! 

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