As nearly anyone who has ever gazed over the rows of brightly colored packages and deposited the right combination of coins and bills into a vending machine has probably wondered at some point: What is this junk?
Vending machines, for the most part, seem to be where candy goes to die, a carb-loaded elephant burial ground. Lurking in the back of offices and schools, waiting for people weakened by hunger pangs to come, change jingling in their pockets, these machines typically offer the kind of snacks that would give most nutritionists the vapors. Not only are these snacks usually unhealthy, they are also frequently obscure variations of known brands, the forgotten remainders of a failed product launch that no one will ever eat.
To be sure, vending machines have changed a lot since the days of the automats, when Jazz Age eateries like Horn & Hardart would dispense a slab of meatloaf or a hot apple pie through a slot in exchange for a nickel or two. Today, however, instead of meals, most vending machines deal in quick fixes; sodas, candy bars and snack foods intended to quiet a rumbling stomach, not take the place of actual nutrition.
The problem is that, to many people, the vending machine is as much a part of their daily diet as fast food joints. According to the National Automatic Merchandising Association, in 2004, Americans spent more than $21 billion buying food and beverages from the vending machines. The average American works about eight to ten hours a day and, according to food-services giant Aramark about 15 percent of workers don't even have time to take a lunch break. For them, the vending machine is a straight shot down the hall, and the snacks inside it are usually fattening and not so healthy — that is until recently.
Healthier options on the rise
Partly in response to pressure from parent groups, customers and the health-care industry, vending machine companies are now beginning to offer snacks that may pose less danger to the heart, arteries and waistline.
As most students and office workers know, making healthy choices is a difficult task, especially when hungry. A morning spent in meetings and hours at the computer make those Little Debbie's snacks hard to avoid — as if being tasty didn't make that hard enough. And for those employees who don't have time to head to a restaurant for lunch or are working late, a vending machine may be all they have.
In January 2005, the National Automatic Merchandising Association started a million-dollar campaign called "Balanced for Life." It highlights the need for a balanced diet and fitness, and starting January 2006, will focus on nutrition in the workplace — where vending sales are highest. According to NAMA, a large part of the campaign is to encourage vending and snack food leaders to develop healthier choices, which, so far, seems to be working.
Already, calorie-conscious consumers can find nutrition bars and salads in their machines. Vending distributors, like the two largest, Charlotte, N.C.-based Canteen Vending Services, a division of the UK's Compass Group, the world's largest food-service company, and Aramark, are implementing healthy food programs. These programs give consumers more variety when it comes to choosing snacks and beverages, while keeping items like the number one selling Snickers bar.
"The approach is not to limit the choice, but to provide a broader choice," says Richard Wyckoff, president of Aramark Refreshment Services. "It's appropriate to have choices that are indulgent and others that are better for you."
Fewer calories, less fat
Aramark has separated their healthy items into four categories that focus on low-fat, low-calories, low-carbohydrates and beverages that are 100 percent fruit juice or water.
Already, traditional suppliers like Pepsico subsidiary Frito-Lay have baked chips, while Nabisco has come out with 100-calorie packs for snacks like Cheez-its and Oreos.
Canteen has 165,000 machines nationwide, and all of them have a minimum of 15 percent "balanced choice" offerings that fit the criteria of either 7 grams of fat or less, or 260 calories or less. Tom Kearny, vice president of marketing for Canteen says, "We'll move that percentage up as consumer demand for healthy food increases."
But even if there are healthier choices in vending machines, it's easy to fall victim to a sugar craving. These lapses in judgment are why Dr. Kathy James at the University of San Diego says try not to skip meals, and if you need small snacks, choose peanuts or yogurt. "If you go to a machine and get a candy bar, it makes you quickly energetic, but an hour later you feel slumpy again."
© 2012 Forbes.com