Lunch seems so long ago, and dinner won't happen for three more hours. Already, your stomach beckons. The noise down below starts as a low murmur. It slowly turns into a grumble that wrests your office mate from his afternoon slumber. Quieting the creature becomes a priority. Where you gonna go? Off to the nearest vending machine.
And there you stand, jingling the quarters in your pocket with anticipation, your eyes darting from package to package. Now hunger pangs turn into guilt pangs. You've promised to be nice to your health. You really want to eat less sugar, less fat, less cholesterol and less salty stuff. So what to choose? Funyuns, Snak-Ens, Zagnuts and Chew-Ets swim before your eyes.
"The questions is, which will do the least damage? That's what it boils down to," said Jayne Hurley, a registered dietitian and associate nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Vending is booming, with automated sales in 1991 expected to top $25 billion. The industry has a 55-year-old trade association, two magazines and an annual convention, held this year in Chicago, which attracted 8,000 participants and 250 exhibitors hawking everything from soup to nuts to panty hose. In the United States, there is one machine for every 42 people, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Assn.
None of this means that food items sold from machines are any more healthful than they used to be. That makes your midafternoon impulses a real dilemma, especially if you're trying to treat your body better. Despite packages that say "No Cholesterol," some token granola bars in earthy-looking green wrappers and bags of nut mixes scattered among the chocolate bars, snacks from the nearest metal monster are still considered junk food. They are mostly nuggets of salt, sugar or fat.
But can we really blame the suppliers and operators? Frito-Lay stopped selling most light products from vending machines because they didn't move. ("Apparently people who consume products from vending machines want real chips," says Frito-Lay spokeswoman Beverly Holmes.) The nation's largest vending distributor, Vending Service of America, only carries light microwave popcorn for special orders. ("If you're a popcorn eater, you crave the salt," said San Francisco Bay Area general manager Jeffrey Duerr. "There's nothing like the butter and salt.")
Vending customers react like microorganisms to stimuli--the color of the package they're familiar with, the smell of popcorn cooking in the microwave or a "comfort food" from long ago, said Tim Sanford, executive editor of New York-based Vending Times magazine.
"If someone goes up to a machine and sees a granola bar and a Hershey bar, they're going to go for the Hershey bar 9 1/2 times out of 10," said Pandel Stoichess, Northern California sales manager for national vending operator Delicor Food and Beverage Service. "Right now our customer is more health conscious. But . . . Snickers is still our No. 1 seller."
So-called healthful products have barely made a dent in vending sales, merchandisers say. And even the products that appear in vending machines under the guise of good health are nutritionally questionable.
Granola bars? Still high in sugar and fat, said Denise Rector, assistant director of community programs for the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the American Heart Assn. Trail mixes? Loaded with nuts and sometimes chocolate, both high fat ingredients. Microwave popcorn? A bag of the regular version has more calories, fat and sodium than many chocolate candy bars.
"It's really a juggling act," Rector said. "In choosing, you have to ask yourself, what's the lesser of the evils?"
Excessive fat in the American diet is still the major concern of health organizations. The average American eats a diet of 38% fat, despite evidence linking grease-laden fare to colon cancer, breast cancer and the nation's No. 1 killer, cardiovascular disease. Obesity also causes high blood pressure. The American Heart Assn. recommends a diet of no more than 30% fat; other groups want guidelines dropped to 20% or 25%. Pritikin opts for 10%.
What does a 30% fat diet mean? If you eat 2,500 calories a day, no more than 825 calories--or 91 grams--should come from fat.
But nearly a third of that daily allotment can come from one 3.5-ounce bag of regular microwave popcorn, which has about 27 grams of fat. One Snickers bar has 13 grams of fat. Three Oreos--half the typical vending machine package, and who eats only half?--has six grams. Those 15 almonds in your itty-bitty airline snack bag have eight grams.
If you're trying to lower your blood cholesterol, the fat you eat--not just the cholesterol--must go down, nutritionists say. In these days of grazing, snacks play a vital role in our diets. Without a keen eye, they can doom the best intentions. Be wary of labels that say "No Cholesterol." Most of those products never had cholesterol to begin with, but are still loaded with fat.