WASHINGTON — It could get harder to indulge in a double cheeseburger and fries without feeling guilty.
Menu labeling requirements proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration will require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to clearly post the calorie count for each item on their menus.
"We've got a huge obesity problem in this country and it's due in part to excess calorie consumption outside the home," says Mike Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods. "Consumers generally when you ask them say they would prefer to have that information."
The new rules will apply to menus, both in restaurants and drive-through lanes. They will also apply to vending machines if calorie information isn't already visible on the package.
The calorie counts will apply to an estimated 280,000 establishments and could be on menus by 2012. Required as part of health overhaul legislation signed into law last year, they are designed to give restaurant diners information that has long been available on packaged goods cooked at home. The FDA estimates that a third of calories are consumed by eating out.
But don't expect calorie shock when ordering at the movie theater, where a tub of popcorn can contain well north of a thousand calories — movie theaters are exempt, along with airplanes, bowling alleys and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food, according to the FDA. Movie theaters pushed to be left out after guidelines published last year included them.
Alcohol will also be exempted, according to the agency. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that could be misleading to consumers.
"I think it's going to be confusing if customers see the calories for soft drinks and juice labeled on the menu but not other drinks such as beer and wine," she said. "It will make it seem like they are better choices."