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Snack machines try to shake junk-food image

April 26, 2004|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

It was only a matter of time.

First, supermarkets began offering low-fat, low-salt and, more recently, low-carbohydrate versions of traditional foods.

Then restaurants and fast-food chains modified their menus, adding broiled versions of fried standards and alternatives to the bread-and-pasta staples.

Now that last bastion of junk snacking has seen the light. Vending machines are turning healthful, or at least less unhealthful.

Driven by consumer demand for items with less fat, salt, sugar or carbohydrates and by school system bans on traditional junk food, companies have begun to offer more nutritious options for snackers away from home.

Established snack-food distributors say they're adding reduced-fat and lower-calorie alternatives to the standard offerings and are placing yogurt, smoothies and fruit in refrigerated machines.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Vending machines -- An article in Monday's Health section misidentified the North Hills high school that eliminated junk food from its vending machines last year as James Madison High School. It is James Monroe High School.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 03, 2004 Home Edition Health Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Vending machines -- An article in last Monday's Health section misidentified the North Hills high school that eliminated junk food from its vending machines last year as James Madison High School. It is James Monroe High School.

Newer companies have sensed an opportunity as well, particularly when it comes to the low-carbohydrate craze.

"The fact is that obesity and diabetes are going to be on everyone's radar screen for the next 20 years," said Joe Preston, co-founder of Low Carb Vending in Bethesda, Md. "These products are flying off the shelves in grocery stores, drugstores and [discount] stores like Sam's Club. The next evolution is to provide the customer with convenience."

The company has installed three low-carbohydrate-only vending machines in the Washington, D.C., area and has deals to supply Atkins, Carbwise and Carb Solutions brand nutrition bars, candy bars, chips and shakes to other vending companies in several cities. It also sells and leases its own brand machines.

Pure Foods, a Beverly Hills-based company with stores in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, announced in January the launch of Pure Foods Vending, which will provide machines stocked with low-carbohydrate, sugar-free and low-fat items, plus natural and organic snacks; it will also distribute those products to other vending machine companies.

Although industry buzz is all about "healthy" vending, many packaged snacks catering to dieters and other health-conscious people can at best be called "healthier," said Matthew Marsh, president of First Class Vending in Los Angeles, a large Southern California vending machine company. "Nutri-Grain bars are healthier than a candy bar but not as healthy as a piece of fruit," he said.

Because not all machines are refrigerated, such perishable offerings as yogurt and sandwiches with mayonnaise on the side can be hard to find, and only a few companies manufacture single-serving organic and healthful snacks. Marsh says most of the more healthful selections he stocks are reduced-fat, reduced-calorie snacks.

Much of the demand for more healthful vending machine fare comes from school districts. Worried about kids' poor eating habits and the epidemic of childhood obesity, many officials have limited or restricted what can be sold on campus.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, with more than 746,800 students, banned sodas last year and will ban junk food come July 1.

The 4,600-student James Madison High School in North Hills has been one of three district schools participating in a state-funded test project for more healthful eating.

Juices, bottled water and energy drinks replaced sodas in vending machines in January 2003, and the school's sole snack machine and the school store stopped selling most traditional junk food in March 2003. They sell baked chips, nuts, pretzels, snack mixes, granola bars, cereal bars and Frosted Cherry Pop-Tarts, the only Pop-Tarts variety to meet guidelines limiting an acceptable snack food to no more than 35% fat (excluding nuts and seeds), 600 milligrams of sodium and 35% added sugar.

Stonyfield Farms, a Manchester, N.H., organic dairy company, is targeting the school market. Earlier this month, it placed vending machines with yogurt, yogurt smoothies, power bars and treats from other organic companies in three San Francisco high schools, two Santa Barbara high schools and a Santa Barbara junior high. It already had machines in East Coast schools.

"Commerce abhors a vacuum just as nature does," company president Gary Hirshberg said. "I have three kids of my own, and I couldn't stand what they're eating in school."

Last week, given the new options of baked chips, spiced nuts and cereal bars, James Madison student Vanessa Casillas, 15, chose Hot 'n Spicy Chex Mix. Were the banned snacks available, she said, "I would eat cookies, candies, hot Cheetos."

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