How Healthy Are "Healthy" Vending Machines?

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If your office vending machine stocked more nutritious offerings, would you visit it more often? That's what happened when the Chicago Park District revamped its snacks-for-sale strategy, replacing traditional cookies and candies with lower-calorie, lower-fat, and overall healthier options. A Northwestern University analysis of all 98 machines in the system found that average monthly sales increased—bringing in more than the industry estimate of $300 per month—and people were happy with the change. The researchers also found that 100 percent of staff members and 88 percent of park patrons reacted positively to the initiative.

So what does "healthier" vending-machine fare look like? Examples of snacks include Kellogg's Special K, Strawberry Pastry Crisps; Kashi Peanut Butter Chewy bar, Snackwell's Creme Sandwich Cookies, Kar's Nut 'n Yogurt Trail Mix, or Fiber 1 Oats & Chocolate bar. All of the foods behind the glass must meet the below requirements:

  • No more than 250 calories per serving
  • No more than 42 grams added sweetener per 20 ounces
  • No more than 35 percent of calories from fat (with the exception of seeds and nuts)
  • No more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
  • No trans fats
  • No more than 35 percent total weight from sugar and caloric sweeteners (natural fruit juice allowed)
  • No more than 400 milligrams (mg) sodium per serving
  • At least five items must contain less than 250 mg sodium per serving
  • No more than two servings per package

But how do the “healthy” snacks stack up against the traditional ones? Take SunChips Harvest Cheddar Chips—they have 210 calories and 9 grams fat. Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips, on the other hand, have 240 calories and 14 grams fat. So you’re saving 30 calories and 5 grams fat. With other options—like the Kellogg's Special K Strawberry Pastry Crisps versus Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, Strawberry—the difference is more extreme. The former have 100 calories and 2 grams fat; the latter, 380 calories and 9 grams fat.

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The plan is not foolproof, says Chicago Park District Wellness Manager Colleen Lammel-Harmon, R.D. "We always need to use judgment when eating. Unless it's water and plain vegetables, all foods can add up in calories." But Lammel-Harmon has seen a real difference in people’s eating habits—one that could last long after they leave the park. "Many choose healthy snacks before leaving the park to hold them over, possibly avoiding a drive-thru."

Would you like to see your vending machines turn healthy? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine.

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