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Healthful vending machines are increasing, but do they help?

They're being installed in more places, but some question the nutritional value of some items — and whether the machines are even needed.

September 26, 2011|By Elena Conis, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Andy Mackensen, left, and Sean Kelly are partners in the Santa Monica-based H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending company.
Andy Mackensen, left, and Sean Kelly are partners in the Santa Monica-based… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Imagine: You're hungry for an afternoon snack, just a little something to hold you over until dinnertime. You head down to the vending machine, drop in your change and walk back to your desk with … yogurt, some trail mix and a piece of fresh fruit.

That's not quite the reality in most workplaces — at least not yet. But more and more vending machine companies are swapping out cookies and candy for granola bars and rice cakes.

The switch is driven by consumer demand coupled with a patchwork of new laws and regulations aimed at improving the way America eats. Some vending machine companies even boast that their machines are stocked exclusively with healthful snacks.

Nutrition experts are split on the trend. Some argue that snacking is contributing to this country's high rate of obesity and that superficial changes to vending machine fare are unlikely to put a dent in the problem.

Others say it's a small but meaningful change.

"People don't get a lot of their calories from vending machines, so the impact will be very limited," says Dr. Paul Simon, director of the division of chronic disease and injury prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Nonetheless, he adds, "I think it's a move in the right direction."

Much of the demand for more healthful vending machine fare has come from schools, according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Over the last decade, states have taken a variety of steps to improve school nutrition policies, she says. They've banned sodas, restricted sales of sweetened sports drinks and limited the amount of sugar and saturated fat in school snacks. Some states have set nutritional standards for food sold on campuses — in school stores, in cafeterias and even in vending machines.

In Alabama, individual vending machine snacks must provide no more than 30 grams of carbohydrates, 360 milligrams of sodium or 10% of the 65 grams of fat recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a child or teen consuming 2,000 calories a day; snacks also have to provide at least 5% of the daily value of at least one of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium or fiber. In Connecticut and District of Columbia schools, juice drinks in vending machines must contain 100% fruit or vegetable juice and can't have added sugars. In Kentucky, snacks must have no more than 300 milligrams of sodium and no more than 14 grams of sugar (unless they're fresh fruits).

And in California, snacks, including those in vending machines, can't derive more than 35% of their calories from fat (including a limit of 10% of calories from saturated fats) or contain more than 35% sugar. Elementary school snacks can't exceed 150 calories, and middle and high school snacks can't exceed 250 calories.

The new rules have prompted a number of entrepreneurs to launch healthful-vending-machine companies in the last couple of years, and many say business is booming.

Take, for example, Fresh Healthy Vending, a San Diego-based start-up that specializes in all-healthful-snack vending machines featuring products such as Stonyfield Farm yogurts and Tazo iced teas. The company got started 16 months ago and already has machines in 800 locations across 43 states, says Chief Executive Jolly Backer.

Backer says the demand for wholesome vending fare got an added boost last year from passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The federal law authorized the USDA to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools during the school day, including snacks in vending machines.

The USDA standards, scheduled to be released by the end of December, should eliminate the variation in local laws that permit the sale of, say, M&Ms and sodas in Alaska schools but not in Arizona.

However, just 13% of the vending machines in this country are found on academic campuses, from elementary schools through colleges. The majority of machines are in offices and factories, according to the 2011 State of the Vending Industry Report published by Automatic Merchandiser, an industry trade journal. And for the most part, standards for those machines have not been established, Wootan says.

In the last five years, a handful of local governments adopted vending nutrition policies that aren't limited to schools. In San Francisco, the snacks in all vending machines on city property have to conform to calorie, fat and sugar limits. So do the vended snacks at all county facilities in Los Angeles.

Even in areas without such rules, consumer vending choices have shifted, according to the State of the Vending Industry report. Over the last few years, vending machine sales of candy and salty snacks have fallen while sales of "nutrition snacks" — a category that includes breakfast bars, granola bars, rice cakes and trail mix — have grown. In 2010 alone, nutrition snack sales increased 7.7% compared with 2009.

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