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Rise of the Healthwashed Vending Machines

I’ve seen a glimpse of the future — and it frightens me. Behold “H.U.M.A.N healthy vending”machines. You know, H.U.M.A.N as in “Helping Unite Man And Nutrition”?

The company, which has received praise from the likes of Forbes, bills itself as “a healthy vending company whose mission is to eradicate childhood obesity through education and healthy eating”.

Their commitment? “To increase access to healthy and fresh vending snacks, foods, and drinks”. They also donate ten percent of their proceeds to unnamed charities that “fight obesity and malnutrition”.

Progressive and paradigm-shifting? Far from it. This is tried-and-true healthwashing with a sprinkle of social conscience-washing.

For starters, consider this nauseatingly obsequious news clip about the H.U.M.A.N machines. While the voiceover and interviewees heap endless praise about the “healthy snacks” and “better for you options”, the machines we are shown are stocked with:

  • NutriGrain Bars: One of Kellogg’s most healthwashed products. Fake dyes in the fruit filling (which contains more high fructose corn syrup than fruit puree), genetically modified ingredients, and partially hydrogenated oils in the yogurt-filled variety.
  • Pop Chips: “Fitness” and “health” magazines practically trip over themselves to speak wonders of these chips (usually with meaningless qualifiers like “guilt-free” and “Hollywood-favorite”). Sure, they are a better choice than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but they are nevertheless a highly processed potato product with very little nutrition. Consider them Baked Lay’s 2.0.
  • Late July Cookies: While these sandwich cookies are made from organic ingredients and avoid the Big Food usual suspects (trans fats, artificial dyes, artificial preservatives), there isn’t anything truly nutritious about them.

Remember, H.U.M.A.N Vending’s motto isn’t “to provide processed foods that are less-worse-for-you”, but rather to “increase access to healthy and fresh vending snacks, foods, and drinks”. Do any of the examples listed above make you think ‘healthy’ or ‘fresh’?

As you can see from the company’s product listings (which range from “immune boosters” to “kids’ juices” to low-carb bars and premium waters), the emphasis is mainly on processed snacks.

Fruit and vegetable trays are apparently available, but every video I’ve seen features machines stocked with the likes of Stacy’s pita chips (a PepsiCo “good-for-you” product) and Hansen’s “natural sodas” (the absence of high fructose corn syrup is a moot point since each can provides 11 teaspoons of added sugar).

One version of these H.U.M.A.N machines, we are told, also “educates children on how to be healthy” via LCD screens. By educating, they mean advertising (i.e.: pointing out that a particular brand of animal crackers is “all-natural”, or that a certain soda brand doesn’t contain high fructose corn syrup).

If education is the goal, I propose cooking classes, gardening projects, or — dare to dream! — a visit to an actual farm. A slew of health claims on an LCD screen does not an education make.

It’s a tragic testament to our current food system that the “eradication” of childhood obesity and community building are supposed to happen through machines that dispense “slightly less-worse-for-you” snacks. Despite the company’s claims that they can “help raise healthy kids in America”, it is disingenuous to peddle this as a viable public health solution or educational tool.

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10 Comments

  1. Hunter said on February 7th, 2012

    All your points are true – but a vending machine needs to hold food that stays edible for several weeks and even months at a time. What would be in your ideal vending machine? Keep in mind, fresh and healthy food goes bad quickly!

  2. admin said on February 7th, 2012

    I’d be happy with a variety of nuts, seeds, 100% whole grain crackers, Mary’s Gone Crackers, etc.

    By the way, this company has vending machines that dispense hot and frozen food, so temperatures are not an issue. In that case, you could have all sorts of fruits, cut up vegetables, hummus, etc.

    These claims of revolutionary healthful snacking seem ridiculous when we’re just talking about Pop Chips, Vitamin Water, and Nutrigrain bars.

    Or, how is this for an idea: no vending machines in schools!

  3. yulaffin said on February 7th, 2012

    “Or, how is this for an idea: no vending machines in schools!”

    Agree with this. When I was growing up (back in the dark ages), we never had vending machines in school. You either ate what your parents packed for your lunch or you bought the school lunch. End of story.

  4. Vicki said on February 7th, 2012

    Well we had vending machines in our school, and I remember being hungry because I didn’t eat most of the gross school lunch provided for me. It was a Lance machine, my favorites were the Cheese Nips, and Sour Cherry Balls, LOL!!
    Well that was in the late 70′s, it is a slow fade from generation to generation. Hopefully, we can start new and better habits. More information and a will to do better for ourselves is always a step in the right direction.

  5. val said on February 7th, 2012

    @yulaffin, I graduated from h.s. in ’75…we ONLY had vending machines there and a microwave oven!!! I am not kidding you…there was no cafeteria at Monmouth Regional in NJ back then. I mostly brought a sandwich or yogurt (back then, Dannon’s was good stuff, not true today).

  6. Jim Purdy said on February 9th, 2012

    “healthy and fresh vending snacks, foods, and drinks”

    Huh? What? Gimme a break.

  7. Kevin said on February 10th, 2012

    A bit harsh, aren’t we? Speaking from experience, I would love to have a machine full of THE absolute best things you can eat…fresh veggies, fruits, non-processed, nutritious snacks. Problem is, those items are either very hard to stock, keep fresh, and most importantly, sell. Are Pop Chips the best snack to eat? Nope, but they are a LOT better chip than pretty much anything else on the market…and like it or not, people like chips. It’s certainly better than a bag a Cheetos and the 38% of your fat that goes along with it.

    People are going to snack, and a lot of them are going to eat whatever is cheap, convenient, and tasty. Would you rather they grab a Back to Nature bag of chocolate chip cookies and a Switch drink, or a bag of Cheetos and a Coke? Is the former going to feed your body right for the day? No, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the option it replaced.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, and healthier eating lifestyles for the greater public have to start in much smaller steps than you would prefer, and like it or not, these vending machines are a step in the right direction.

  8. admin said on February 10th, 2012

    Kevin,

    Not harsh at all. Simply fed up with being expected to accept marginally nutritious food as “healthy” and “good for you”.

    Keep in mind that this company has vending machines that dispense hot and frozen foods. Therefore, temperatures are not an issue for them. I point this out because it means they could offer machines stocked with pre-cut fruits and vegetables, as there would be no spoilage issues.

    If you are going to sell yourself as a “healthful” company, then you need to take actions that support that. All these vending machines do is give Big Food products like Vitamin Water and Pop-Chips unwarranted health halos. Sure, there are some good options like Lara Bars, but they are outweighed by the likes of NutriGrain bars and animal crackers (the fact that animal crackers are low in fat does not mean they are a healthful choice; they are essentially white flour and sugar). A beverage with 11 teaspoons of added sugar has no place in a lineup of “healthful” products. Replacing high fructose corn syrup with cane juice has nothing to do with health; empty calories are empty calories.

    What needs to be kept in mind is that the fact that a product is “not as bad” as something else does not make it healthy. The argument you pose (about Pop Chips being better than Cheetos) is the same rhetoric trotted out by food companies as to why Diet Coke and Baked Lay’s are “better-for-you” foods. It’s hype and marketing. “Better-for-you” usually means “not as bad as…”.

    A truly healthful vending machine could be stocked with different nuts and seeds (bags of almonds, bags of cashews, bags of peanuts, bags of sunflower seeds, etc.), 100% whole grain crackers, unsweetened teas, Lara bars, etc. Since these machines can handle all sorts of temperatures, you could also throw in sliced apples, baby carrots, hummus, etc.

    For the time being, with these products in mind, this comes across as a gimmick. Again — if you are going to market yourself as a champion of health, these sorts of products do not support those intentions in the least.

  9. Sky said on February 16th, 2012

    It definitely is not impossible for vending machines to provide more healthy alternatives. At Cornell University, we have an interesting mix–the school hasn’t quite figured out how it wants to structure things yet. As a result, most of the dorms have junk-filled machines, but the main buildings’ machines tend to have more reasonable options. We also have apple vending machines, for when you just need some fruit (I absolutely LOVE these).

    Cornell has also developed a rating system; it marks foods that it considers “heart healthy,” “low fat,” or “good source of whole grains” with a sticker, and defines what each means on the front of the machine. This doesn’t solve everything, but it does help those of us who get caught without food but are trying to make the right choices.

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