The Problem With ‘Healthy Vending Machines’ [Opinion]

A story recently broke about a vending machine that prompts “healthy choices” by introducing a time-delay for “unhealthy” snacks. The project, according to a report from TIME, was started by preventive medicine experts at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Sounds great, right? Encourage people to eat better by frustrating them.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple as all that.

We have to start by asking ourselves: what is healthy, exactly? Nutrition is honestly still a science in its infancy. We just found out this year that Harvard studies on the detrimental effects of sugar in a diet were falsified fifty years ago: as reported by STAT, the researchers were paid off by the American sugar lobby to produce “favorable results” and we’ve more or less gone along with them for half a century, blaming fat for all of our ills. And now, as the New Yorker reported, researchers are questioning if dietary fat is bad at all. Lately, it’s looking more like carbohydrates are the real culprit in most health problems – but we’re not exactly sure about those either.

#throwback The Junior Nibbles Consulting Team was working on-site, learning more about our client’s healthy vending machine (which, of course, included purchasing some snacks????). Great job everyone! Photo from Bonnie :) #healthynibbles #healthyvendingmachine #uebslife #tanhinscotland2017

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So let’s take a look at this image. That’s a group of students showing off their snacks from a “healthy vending machine.” On (very) close inspection, those snacks turned out to be Eat Real quinoa and hummus chips. And so we went to find some nutritional information.

The hummus chips have 126 calories per 28g serving. That breaks down into 19.2g of carbohydrates, 4.8g of fat, 1.2g of fiber and 1.8g of protein. Not to mention 0.55g of salt. Next up, the quinoa chips. 150 calories over 8g of fat, 19g of carbohydrate (some of which is listed as “sugars” and “added sugars,”) 2g of protein and 0.46g of salt.

But those numbers don’t tell us a whole lot on their own – so let’s compare them to the ubiquitous unhealthy snack, Lay’s plain potato chips. A same-size serving of “America’s favorite potato chip” rings in at 160 calories. That’s 10g of fat, 15g of carbohydrate (almost none of which is sugar,) 2g of protein, and – wait for it – only 0.17g of salt. And potatoes, incidentally, have a fair number of vitamins: that single serving of chips contains 10 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin B6, among others.

Depending on whom you ask? The Lay’s might be healthier. At the very least, they’re not all that different. And just in case you need the reminder, fruit juices are full of sugar and organic products aren’t any healthier, as The Sun and The Globe And Mail point out, respectively.

Health food? Maybe. We're not really sure of anything anymore.

Now, we don’t actually know what products the researchers decided were healthy. We do know the qualifications they used to get there, though: they had to meet five to seven.

  • Less than 250 calories per serving
  • 35 percent or fewer calories from fat
  • Less than 350 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • No trans fats
  • Less than 5 percent of daily value of saturated fat per serving
  • More than 1 gram of dietary fiber per serving
  • Less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving

Presumably, the “serving” they’re referring to means the entire product dispensed, not the serving on the label. But it’s interesting to note that fat was their main determination of what healthy is.

So that’s health. And that brings us to our second issue: when it’s not researchers, who is stocking these “healthy” vending machines?

Well, the companies that distribute and manage them, obviously.

And therein lies the bigger problem.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the issues that many experts and pundits alike have pointed out with the health food industry: specifically, that most health food isn’t healthy. What we need to talk about is what happens when that industry at large has the opportunity to profit from well-meaning “management” of diets.

The researchers introduced a 25-second delay for “unhealthy” products, and saw a 2-5 percent increase in the number of “healthy” items being purchased. That on its own isn’t exactly great; it means that anywhere from 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 customers (many of them likely repeat customers) chose the “healthy” item when prodded. Moreover, a vending machine is intended to be instant – that’s its entire purpose. But we’ll pretend that 25 seconds isn’t an infinite increase in time spent, and say that it makes it take 20 times longer.

Here’s how that all comes together. Imagine, if you will, going to McDonald’s for a burger. You order a burger, fries, and a Coke. And you’re informed that you can have your meal in five minutes if you order a Pepsi instead, or some two hours later if you want the Coke.

And really think about that for a moment, being forced to wait two hours for this because somebody assumes you're unhealthy by virtue of ordering it.

Now, we have a problem. Because that’s unfair competition. It’s potentially illegal, and Lay’s isn’t going to be happy if customers are “encouraged” by an extreme delay to buy the hummus chips instead – and quite frankly, however you feel about potato chips, Lay’s would be right to be angry.

So back to the question that started this thread; who is stocking the healthy vending machines? Companies which solicit products from other companies and receive a percentage on sales. And how do they determine who gets the “delay” slots and who doesn’t?

The tail end to all of this is that people have a right to choose what they eat, especially when we’re not even particularly certain of what is healthy in the first place. And it may be well-meaning, but at the end of the day, 5 percent of people eating one 55-gram bag of slightly-healthier chips one day probably isn’t going to make a difference in the world. An apple a day actually won’t keep the doctor away; better nutrition means bigger changes than a vending machine snack.

It’s questionable whether it’s appropriate to police anyone’s food choices at all, but this almost certainly isn’t a constructive way to do it, and might just hand companies another way to gain an unfair advantage.

[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]