“All right, that’s one BLT sandwich for 550 calories and a side of fries for 300. That brings your total to 850 calories. Please pull forward to the next window.”

Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft of regulationsthat require calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants and on some vending machine foods.

doughnutcalories-featured.jpgThe proposed rules come as a result of last year’s health care reform law, which stipulates that food establishments with over 20 locations must post calorie information where consumers can see it. The law applies to fast food restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and some grocery stores.

“Americans now consume about one-third of their total calories on foods prepared outside the home,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “While consumers can find calorie and other nutrition information on most packaged foods, it’s not generally available in restaurants or similar retail establishments. This proposal is aimed at giving consumers consistent and easy-to-understand nutrition information.”

Owners who operate 20 or more vending machines are also required to provide nutritional information for foods in the machine that do not carry it on their packaging.

Proponents of these requirements are hopeful that posted nutrition information will make consumers more aware of what’s in the food they’re ordering.

“Trying to find the healthy options when dining out can be more difficult than you think – even a salad can be loaded with hidden fat and sodium.  In the same way that nutrition labels on packaged foods allow consumers to see exactly what they’re eating and drinking, these calorie counts will empower Americans to make informed decisions when they eat away from home,” said Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa in a statement.

The new set of regulations will not apply to businesses such as bowling alleys and movie theaters, which serve food as a secondary service. Alcohol is also exempt from the requirements. Many commentators are disappointed by these exceptions.

“If a movie theater is going to serve up thousand-calorie tubs of popcorn, 400-calorie drinks, and 400-calorie boxes of candy, the least they could do is tell you about it,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in a press release.

So far, research on whether posting calorie information affects people’s food choices has produced conflicting results.

One study from Stanford University showed that customers at Starbucks in New York City ordered 6 percent less calories per transaction following a new law requiring nutrition information to be posted at all chain restaurants there. If this pattern carried over to all fast food chains, the result would be an average decrease of 30 calories per day among the population, according to this research.

However, another study conducted at various fast food locations throughout the city’s low-income areas found that nutrition labeling did not have a significant effect on what teenagers ordered, or on what parents ordered for their children.

The FDA is receiving comments on the proposed rule for menu labeling until June 6, 2011. Comments on the vending machine rule will be accepted until July 7 of this year.

For more information on submitting comments, click here.