The Affordable Care Act will leave its mark on vending machines this year as every item will soon have to show how many calories it contains, that information to be clearly listed on the outside of the vending machine. Will it lead to healthier choices?
The chips or the donut sticks? Would your choice be different if you knew the chips have 240 calories and the donut sticks have 400? The whole idea behind these regulations, expected to be finalized next month and implemented before the end of 2014, , is to get consumers to think twice about the convenience foods we're choosing. But does knowing the calories make a difference?
“People still are gonna eat what they wanna eat,” says dietician Megan Hecker. “When I've talked to a few people that maybe aren't mindful eaters, they say, I don't want to know that information. I want to go to a restaurant to eat that food. If I was really that concerned I'd be making wiser choices and not eating at those restaurants.”
Hecker says that despite the fact we're going to do whatever we want when it comes to food, it's still advantageous for us to have to see what we're eating. She also points out that restaurants are much different than vending machines. She sees these as more of a quick fix when we're really hungry.
There are an estimated five million vending machines across the country and a typical machine can make about $7,000 a year. That makes it a $35 billion industry.
"They're loaded with caffeine, way more caffeine, three to four times more than a cup of coffee and our bodies, whether we're kids, adults, it's way more caffeine than anybody really needs. So in the long run, the 100-percent fruit juice would still be your better option."
Vending executives are calling the calorie disclosure regulation a "burden.” By their estimates, it would cost the industry $25.8 million up front to list calories on each food, then an additional $24 million every year to keep the labeling current. Is this even the best approach?
Something like Twizzlers Nibs have more calories than most candy bars, yet significantly less fat. So what about labeling fat instead of calories? Zero grams of fat seem ideal, but underneath, we find something filled with carbs and sugar. Once we get over to the 22 grams of fat, we find both the chips and the peanuts, yet dietitians still say this is your best option.
"The peanuts have the protein and good healthy fats in them,” says Hecker. “Yes they are salted. If we could cut the salt back a little bit that would be a better choice, but in the long run, out of a vending machine, if you can get the nuts, it's gonna be that sustainable protein that's gonna make you feel full as opposed to heading back to the vending machine later for another snack. If we started at the bottom, at the bigger picture and just gave healthier options, then people would eat healthier options. If you have a vending machine that only has water in it, you're thirsty, you're gonna buy water. If you have a vending machine that has fruit, lower fat snacks, more whole grain, I think people will buy those."