A new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) shows that the majority of food and beverage vending machine offerings in the United States are unhealthy.
In a survey of 853 vending machines in the U.S., 85 percent of food offerings were classified as unhealthy and 58 percent of beverage options were sugar-sweetened. This is a problem because, “Having unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines makes it harder for people to make healthy choices and promotes consumption of energy-dense foods and beverages that can contribute to obesity,” the report notes.
In late 2013, CSPI volunteers nationwide evaluated food and drink vending machines in 37 states that were located on both government property and public property, including state universities and colleges, parks, town halls, courthouses and other similar locations. Of the public property vending machines surveyed, 63 percent contained beverages and 37 percent contained food options.
Beverages were grouped into two main categories: unhealthy and “healthier.” Unhealthy options included regular soda, fruit drinks (such as lemonade, punches, and Vitaminwater), calorically sweetened iced tea and coffee, full-calorie sports or energy drinks, and whole or 2 percent milk. These unhealthy options made up 58 percent of the available choices in vending machines. Drinks classified as “healthier” included water (regular or carbonated, or with non-caloric sweeteners added), flavored and unflavored low-fat or fat-free milk, 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice, and diet versions of soda, fruit drinks, iced tea or coffee and sports or energy drinks. Of the “healthier” options, low-calorie drinks were most prevalent, at 23 percent, followed by water at 16 percent and juice at 3 percent.
Food vending machine options were classified as unhealthy, “healthier,” or healthy. The study found that only 5 percent of food options could be classified as healthy, and those options included fruits, vegetables and nuts. Another 10 percent of food options could be classified as “healthier,” including items like baked chips, granola bars, whole-grain crackers and lower-fat foods.
Overwhelmingly though, 85 percent of offerings were unhealthy. Candy was the most common item sold, and accounted for 32 percent of all available food options in public property vending machines, followed by chips (24 percent) and sweet baked goods (15 percent). Additionally, for options that also have a lower-fat counterpart (for example, regular chips versus lower-fat or baked chips), the more unhealthy version was always more prevalent.
So what can be done to encourage healthier vending? CSPI offers several recommendations for vending guidelines. First, they recommend that vending companies raise the amount of healthy and “healthier” options available in machines. The report notes that companies have seen an increased demand for healthier foods in vending machines, and that those who have already implemented healthier standards have actually seen increased revenues from their machines. In fact, the leading complaint from park-goers in Chicago, where they have implemented healthy standards, was that the healthier options weren’t healthy enough.
Second, they suggest that vending machines utilize calorie labeling to help consumers recognize the healthier options. In their survey, they found that only 8 percent of vending machines analyzed used calorie labeling, though some were using unique techniques such as using heart healthy stickers beside healthier options or pricing healthier items much lower than unhealthy items.
Finally, they recommend properties put evidence-based nutrition standards in place for the types of items that companies can stock in vending machines, so that there are always healthier options available for those who want them. “Without standards in place, people who want to eat healthier are unlikely to do so,” the report concludes.
If you have vending machines in your work or neighborhood, why not ask the owner for healthier options? Or, ask them to label or re-price the healthier options to be more identifiable or affordable. We at PreventObesity.net would love to feature Leader success stories of people able to make healthy vending changes in their environment! If you have done these things and have a success story to share, add it to the comments below!