How healthy is your vending machine?

posted on Monday, October 15, 2012

When we’re hungry, we eat what’s easy and available, and sometimes that means vending machine food. But walk up to your typical vending machine and you’d likely be hard pressed to find a health-minded snack.

The Iowa Department of Public Health is seeking to change the view from behind the glass of a vending machine. “People don’t expect to see healthy choices in vending machines,” reports Carol Voss, nutrition coordinator at the Iowa Department of Public Health and project leader. What if vending machines stocked a shelf or two with a healthier option? She and her team believe there are heaps of benefits. “A healthier vending machine can satisfy the CEO interested in bringing in healthy choices to the workplace and to the consumer looking for healthy options.”

Vending machines are often the go-to place for midday snacks at work or on the road.

How healthy is your vending machine?

Voss’ team’s first step – in partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – was to develop an assessment tool, accurately measuring the nutritional elements of vending machines. With technical assistance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS) staff and with grant funds from Wellmark, the group developed an online assessment tool specifically for vending machines, NEMS-Vending (NEMS-V). This color-coded checklist evaluates foods based on three categories of nutrition and portion:

  • RED: “Sometimes okay” foods that are not as healthy and are outside dietary guidelines.
  • YELLOW: “Better for you” snack foods that are somewhat healthy but do not provide a full serving of fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy or whole grain. (eg: granola bars, animal crackers in the right portion).
  • GREEN: “Good for you” foods, which are the healthiest and provide a serving of fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy or whole grain (eg: popcorn, dried cranberries, dehydrated vegetables).

With an easy and effective tool, vending machine operators considered stocking healthy options to improve their bottom line. “Some of the red category items don’t sell well,” says Voss. “Replacing the soft-sellers with healthier options increases the client base.”

Stocking 30% of a vending machine with healthier for you snacks, Iowa hopes to set a trend in vending machine operations.

What does a “healthy” vending machine look like? Voss’ team suggests offering at least 30% of vending machine choices in the yellow or green category.

Educating the consumer

The next challenge was to study vending behaviors in various environments. The team set to work, interviewing subjects face-to-face and through online surveys to determine which type of messaging would encourage a healthier choice purchase. The winner: MIX IT UP! – red, yellow and green graphics with simple tag lines such as “Add a little variety in your snacking routine,” and “Now balancing our snacks has become even easier.” Sample tests in businesses, rest areas and government agencies showed positive results, with healthy choices accounting for up to 31% of total sales.

The NEMS-V tool is available online for those interesting in improving their vending machine options. (NEMS-V tool). The team hopes to implement a procurement policy for vending machines operating in all state-owned buildings, rest areas and parks to meet the 30% goal.

So what’s next?

Voss’ team’s next stop: salad bars. Using lessons learned in the vending machine project the Department of Public Health is developing a tool to call out healthier-for-you options at the salad bar. Stay tuned…