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US researchers develop vending machine technology to help improve snack habits

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Gill Hyslop

By Gill Hyslop+


Scientist have developed a new vending machine technology that delays dispensing snacks, giving consumer's time to choose healthier options. Pic: ©iStock/kasto80
Scientist have developed a new vending machine technology that delays dispensing snacks, giving consumer's time to choose healthier options. Pic: ©iStock/kasto80

Scientists discovered that delaying access to high-calorie snacks in vending machines can potentially shift people’s choices to purchase healthier options – and developed a technology to do just that.

Having to wait for something makes it less desirable, claimed Dr Brad Appelhans, clinical psychologist at the Rush University Prevention Center in Chicago, Illinois.

I want it… now!

“Research shows that humans strongly prefer immediate gratification, and this preference influences choices and behavior in daily life,” he said.

“We wanted to see if we could use this preference for immediate gratification to improve people’s vending machine snack choices.”

The researchers developed the DISC (Delays to Improve Snack Choices) system that employs a “delay” bar, separating healthier snacks from less nutritious options. 

When a consumer selects what is deemed a less healthy snack, the system begins a 25-second time delay before the vending machine releases the product.

Less healthy snacks are placed in the top half of a vending machine that get caught on a platform. Healthier snacks are stocked at the bottom of the machine, avoiding the platform.

What makes a snack healthy?

The researchers categorized a snack as healthy when it meets five of seven criteria:

  • Less than 250 calories per serving
  • 35% or fewer calories from fat
  • Less than 350mg of sodium per serving
  • No trans fats
  • Less than 5% of daily value of saturated fat per serving
  • More than 1 gram of dietary fiber per serving
  • Less than 10 grams of added sugar per serving

Vending machines fitted with the patented DISC system feature a decal informing consumers they would be in for a short wait if they opted for less nutritious treats. The machines also display a “delivery countdown” to allow people to change their snack choice.

The vending machine boom

The researcher’s findings, presented at the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s Annual Meeting & Scientific Sessions at the end of March, reported the delay yielded a 2-5% increase in the proportion of total purchases from healthy snacks, but did not harm total sales volume or vending revenue.

“Vending machines are conveniently located, have a broad reach and are the most prevalent source of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods in the US,” said Appelhans.

“They are not going anywhere any time soon, so this new vending machine system could be an effective and financially viable strategy that can shift individuals’ choices towards healthier options.”

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