As the obesity pandemic grows, vending machines around the country have come under fire, described as bastions of empty calories and trans fats in a sea of hungry consumers. But Sean Kelly, CEO of Human Healthy Vending, saw a market where others cast doubt. He knew it was time to give the vending machine a makeover.
"There is a lack of access to healthy foods and drinks," said Kelly. "There are these nutritional food deserts everywhere you look, and there's a lack of access to education at the point of sale. There's a big demand for it."
Human Healthy Vending Machines offers several different machines, including a coffee machine, a snack machine, filled with granola bars, rice-based chips, coconut waters and teas, and even a machine that dispenses healthy hot foods.
"There's no way we're going to snap fingers and tell an entire country to stop snacking," said Kelly. "That might work for six months, but it's not sustainable. Rather than creating no benefits, we're going to create some benefits and help people get healthier and healthier."
Now that government has encouraged healthy eating habits to curb obesity and schools have banned sodas, sports drinks and sugary and fatty foods from vending machines, vending machines dispensing healthy snacks have become staples in school hallways and recreational centers.
"A healthy plan of eating can include healthy, portion controlled, moderate calorie snacks," said Martin Binks, clinical director of Binks Behavioral Health. "So, providing easy access to these is a great tool. Swapping out unhealthy vending machines for healthy ones, with small portions of truly healthy options, is a great strategy."
While Binks said that, in a perfect world, no one would be bombarded with food cues and have the urge to snack, this will not likely happen, so "improving what is available to us when our planning falls short or our hunger is taking over represents a step in the right direction."
In April, the Food and Drug Administration drafted a proposal in which owners who operate 20 or more vending machines must post the calorie information for food sold inside the vending machine, unless the nutritional information is already visible from the inside. The regulation is still pending, but it will likely come into effect in the coming months, experts said.
"Vending machines can provide quick, easily accessible snack options for those times when time between meals gets too long," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University at St. Louis. "The important point about grabbing from a vending machine is thinking before you press the button."
As for vending machines' impact on obesity as a whole, most experts say healthy options in the machines aren't going to fix everything, but it coulld be a good place to start.
"Overeating is overeating, whether it comes from nutritious food or junk food," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y. "If people have more access to healthier snacks, sometimes it starts them thinking about making healthier choices elsewhere in their lives, too, not just at vending machines, and that can be a good thing."
As for tips on avoiding junk food all together during a snack attack, experts say the answer is simple: Pack your own food.
"Choose wholesome snack foods when you go grocery shopping, and use them to stock an insulated snack pack before you leave the house each day," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Center. "This way, you, rather than someone who stocks a vending machine, is in charge of your options."