By Lisa Baertlein
Sept 26 (Reuters) - Hold the fries, pass the salad. McDonald's Corp on Thursday said it would offer healthy options as part of its popular value meals, letting customers choose a side salad, fruit or vegetables instead of french fries.
The announcement by the world's largest fast-food chain comes as more companies respond to government and consumer pressure to address the global obesity epidemic.
McDonald's, which often bears the brunt of criticism over the restaurant industry's penchant for tempting diners with indulgent and often high-calorie food, said it would offer the option in all of its 20 major global markets by 2020.
McDonald's also vowed to promote and market only water, milk and juice as the beverages in its popular Happy Meals for children as part of its announcement at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York on Thursday.
Waist sizes around the world are increasing, setting off alarms in public health circles.
In recent years, the U.S. food industry has begun yielding to pressure from government, parents and consumers seeking to slim down adults and children. Sugary sodas have been yanked from public schools; sugar, sodium and calorie levels have been reduced in products, and calorie counts have been posted on some restaurant menus.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit that has tangled with McDonald's over everything from fattening food to the marketing of Happy Meals, approved of the company's move to add more fruits and vegetables to the menu. Still, it says the company and its rivals have a long way to go in terms of offering healthier options.
"McDonald's slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today, but a long road lies ahead for the company," CSPI said in a statement.
McDonald's is seen as something of a trend setter among restaurant chains, but like many of its peers, it has tended to resist external efforts to force change.
About one year ago McDonald's said it would begin listing calorie information on menus in some 14,000 U.S. restaurants and drive-throughs -- ahead of a national rule that would require larger restaurant chains to make such disclosures but months after other chains embraced the idea.
In July 2011 it tweaked its popular Happy Meals for children - reducing the french fries portion by more than half and adding apples to every order. The move came after pressure from CSPI, parent groups and others.
More than one-third of Americans are obese, and about 10 percent of the nation's healthcare bill is tied to obesity-related illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
McDonald's said its announcement is part of a plan developed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded by the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, to increase customers' access to fruit and vegetables and help families and children to make informed eating and lifestyle choices.