NEW YORK - McDonald's restaurants in the United States will soon get a new menu addition: the number of calories in the chain's burgers and fries.
The world's biggest hamburger chain said Wednesday that it will post calorie information on restaurant and drive-thru menus nationwide starting Monday. The move comes ahead of a regulation that could require major chains to post the information as early as next year.
"We want to voluntarily do this," said Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA. "We believe it will help educate customers."
Cities such as New York and Philadelphia already require posting of calorie information, Fields noted, and the chain's new policy would not affect what is offered to customers. "When it's all said and done, the menu mix doesn't change," she said. "But I do think people feel better knowing this information."
The chain also plans to announce that its restaurants in Latin America, which are owned by a franchisee, will start providing calorie information on menus this spring.
McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Ill., already posts calorie information in Britain, Australia and South Korea.
The decision to post calorie information in the United States follows the Supreme Court's decision this summer to uphold President Obama's health care overhaul, which includes a regulation that would require restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie information. The timetable for carrying out that requirement is being formulated.
Corporate Accountability International, which has urged McDonald's to stop marketing its food to children, said that the chain has fought efforts to institute menu labeling in local jurisdictions in the past and that its latest move was "certainly not voluntary."
Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, says the company didn't support local efforts to require menu labeling because it wanted a national standard.
The posting of calorie information isn't a magic bullet in fighting obesity but could have a big effect over time, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates on nutrition and food safety issues.
"Obesity isn't the kind of thing where one day you wake up and you're fat. We gradually and slowly gain weight over time," she said.
So even if only some people are swayed to make slightly better choices, Wootan thinks there's a big benefit to providing calorie information.
Another upside is that companies tend to work harder to provide healthier options when they're required to display calorie information. "It can be embarrassing, or shocking, so they end up changing the way the product is made," Wootan said.
Joe Finn, a sales manager from Oconomowoc, Wis., said he was surprised at the calorie information posted at a hamburger restaurant when he flew to California earlier this year for the Rose Bowl.
"All the calories were up there, and I thought, well, I'm not going to order that," said Finn, 51, who's trying to be careful of what he eats. He ended up picking the most basic burger, without cheese. Back at home, he tries to stick to options where he knows the calorie information, such as Subway sandwiches.
"Otherwise, you could be ordering a gut bomb," Finn said.
The move by McDonald's could spur other restaurant chains to move ahead of the federal regulation. Representatives for Taco Bell and Wendy's Co. did not respond to requests to comment. A representative for Burger King said the chain is waiting for further guidance from regulators.