WASHINGTON – The typical vending machine fare consists of chocolate bars and potato chips, leaving few options for people seeking low-calorie or low-salt snacks.
That is changing now as companies develop markets for products they expect to satisfy both nutritionists and consumers. Imagine peeled baby carrots instead of candy, or crispy baked pita bread in place of those chips.
Healthy products, relegated to a few trays or maybe a row or two, if they were sold at all, are starting to take over entire machines. These offerings account for a small but growing share of the $3.3 billion business.
Companies hope to attract adults who have avoided vending machines because of the diet-busting temptations. Another focus is on schools, where parents and administrators would prefer that students munch on raisins rather than powdered doughnuts.
A vending machine without candy bars and regular soda is a big step, said Mike Kiser, chief executive officer of Compass Vending Services (search), an industry leader based in Charlotte, N.C. "We've never had the courage to take out our best sellers," he said.
Compass is experimenting with a bank of food and drink machines lined up behind a plastic facade to look like a single unit. Products include granola bars, PowerBars, (search) salads, energy drinks and smoothies.
Sodexho Vending reserves nine of a typical machine's 45 trays for healthy items, said Tom Smith, senior vice president of the company, based in Gaithersburg, Md. Examples are nuts and dried fruits, and low-sodium chips.
As the companies see it, that offers a little something for all the different needs.
Busy workers may want to eat healthy if they are getting something from the machine because they are too busy for lunch, said Bill Mitchell, Sodexho Vending's director of program development.
Of course, there still is a place for candy. People still will want "a small indulgence" as a reward, he said.
Stonyfield Farm (search), an organic foods company in Londonderry, N.H., has 15 vending machines in California, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and has applications from schools in 36 states, spokeswoman Cathleen Toomey said.
To help fill the machines, the company rounded up products from a number of organic vendors. She said the company followed guidelines from a children's nutrition group, Kids First, to make sure the offerings were healthy.
The machines offer baked pita chips instead of potato chips, and yogurt drinks instead of soda, Toomey said. Students tested the products, and the company founder is sure "you can put a Coke machine alongside our machine and we will survive," she said.
School districts increasingly are looking for healthier snacks. In some cases, they are being pushed by state law that restricts what students can get from the vending machines. In other areas, healthier choices could be district policy.
Schools in Hopkins, Minn., will switch this school year to treats such as yogurt and carrot sticks, said Bertrand Weber, director of operations for the St. Paul-Minneapolis-area district's food service program.
There also will be standard snacks, but with a healthy edge — for instance, no trans fats, he said. Health experts say this kind of fat can clog arteries.
Weber said students already watch what they eat. Hopkins High School's Health Nut Cafe, which specializes natural and organic meals, accounts for half of the lunch business, he said.