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Delayed dispensing of vending-machine junk food could prompt healthier choices, research shows

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Photo: Juanmonino/iStockphoto

Chicago – It’s mid-afternoon and you could go for a snack, so you visit the office vending machine. Will you choose a healthy option – perhaps a cheese stick or a fruit cup? Or will you select a candy bar, a bag of potato chips or something similar?

A time delay might help you make a smarter choice, according to a study from researchers at Rush University Medical Center.

The researchers examined purchases from six vending machines in three locations. Certain vending machines featured a system, developed by the researchers, that separated healthy snacks from less healthy options and alerted customers that the machines would dispense the less healthy selections after a 25-second delay. Those machines featured an LED countdown clock that gave customers the opportunity to change their selection to a healthier option. The other machines offered users discounts on healthy selections but no delay.

To qualify as “healthy,” snacks needed to meet five of seven criteria: 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, and less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving.

Results showed that customers were not as likely to select less nutritious options if the vending machine indicated the items would arrive after a 25-second delay. The same vending machine let consumers know that healthier options would be delivered immediately.

Healthy snack purchases improved between 2 percent and 5 percent in machines with the delay, researchers said.

“Vending machines are conveniently located, have a broad reach and are the most prevalent source of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods in the U.S.,” lead researcher Brad Appelhans said in a press release. “They are not going anywhere anytime soon, so this new vending machine system could be an effective and financially viable strategy that can shift individuals’ choices toward healthier options.”

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