(July 14) Are fast-food joints becoming becoming health-conscious?

That’s a question being bandied about with increasing frequency, in the wake of McDonald’s Corp. having added salads — and, perhaps soon, fruits — to its menu.

Wendy’s International Inc., long the leader in fresh produce offerings, with its Garden Sensations line of salads, is starting to feel a little heat of competition. Wendy’s, based in Dublin, Ohio, reported July 7 that its June earnings were down, perhaps partially as a result of competition from McDonald’s in the salad derby.

Now, apparently, McDonald’s is attempting to intensify the competition.

USA Today reported July 1 that the Oak Brook, Ill.-based hamburger giant is planning to test-market in the U.S. a children’s entrée, the Happy Meal, with an option to replace french fries with a bag of fresh, sliced fruit and low-fat milk in place of soft drinks.

McDonald’s has been trying out the concept — with sliced apples and grapes in bags supplied by Fresh Del Monte — in the United Kingdom since April.

“Obviously, the fast-food companies are working very aggressively to improve the nutritional balance of their offerings, and I suspect that if McDonald’s has been very successful in the U.K., it would very much entertain something similar here,” said Eric Larson, senior research analyst at Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray.

McDonald’s officials did not return telephone calls for comment.

Wendy’s promoted its newest Garden Sensations offering, the Southwest Chicken Caesar, during June.

The company reported that salads as a percent of sales topped 10% during May and June, and are at similar product mix levels compared to a year ago.

McDonald’s has said that the move is part of its efforts to give customers “even more choice.”

Not known is whether the move is a direct response to a crescendo of complaints about the nutritional value of traditional fast-food fare, or a string of earning statements showing decreased profits for the chain.

But pressures on all food purveyors have increased since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that there are twice as many overweight children and three times as many overweight adolescents as in 1980.

Reports of possible nutritional upgrades at McDonald’s surfaced at a time when Kraft Foods, another giant in the food industry, answered complaints from the public, activist lawyers and even retail customers by announcing July 1 that it would cut portion sizes, stop marketing in schools and cut the fat content of many of its foods.