Healthy vending machines

A Canadian businessman's mission to offer healthier treats in snack machines is slowly catching on in the city, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:16pm

V ending machines are enormously popular in Asia. Japan leads the pack with about one machine per 25 people. Hong Kong, often mentioned as another bastion of the vending machine, lags well behind Japan, with one machine per about 700 people.

It was in this snack machine gap that Adam So, a Canadian banker working in Hong Kong, saw an opportunity. "I looked into the vending concept and thought, this is easy," he says. "It's a good cash cow."

But as So was looking to start up a business, vending machines were coming under attack in the West, especially in the US and in schools. Vending machines, which offer inexpensive access to unhealthy snack foods, were increasingly being blamed for high rates of childhood obesity and other health problems.

The other place vending machines are prevalent is in high-stress work environments where employees need fuel to get through long days. Hong Kong's corporate workers were beginning to embrace healthier lifestyles and So saw an opportunity there, too.

Enter Health Addiction, a company that provides vending machines that carry only healthy snacks and beverages. Originally, So took his inspiration from California public schools, where junk food vending machines had been banned and healthy alternatives were starting to spring up.

He tried to set stringent guidelines for his snacks, but found that the paucity of healthy snacking options in Hong Kong, coupled with the demands of a public too accustomed to their unhealthy snacks, meant that he had to be a bit less strict. He has filled them with items such as Alpen light bars, Fuseli cereal bars, pretzels, Sunbites chips and freeze-dried edamame.

Since the first Health Addiction vending machine debuted in November 2009, business has been brisk. There are now 60 of them in Hong Kong, most in offices and schools.

Health Addiction's machines were just what anxious parents and school administrators were looking for. At many international schools, traditional vending machines were at odds with their visions of a healthier, more nutritionally aware, student body.

Nasci Lobo's son attends the Canadian International School of Hong Kong and Loso takes health and nutrition seriously. He makes his son's lunches and snacks at home. He told his son to avoid school meals and to steer clear of the junk in the vending machines.

over the past three years the snacking habits of our student body have definitely become a lot healthier

When Lobo was hired as the school's alumni relations and sustainable development officer, he made cleaning up the school's food options a priority.

"When I was with the parent's association there were many discussions about snacks in the machines ... things like prawn crackers and Pocky sticks. We found out about Health Addiction and now we have two machines from them, one in the cafeteria, and one in the gym."

He still prefers his teenage son to eat the food he prepares at home, but as his son gets older the rules become harder to enforce. The Health Addiction machines give him some peace of mind.

A teacher at the same school, Aaron Metz says that with the removal of the old unhealthy machines, he has seen a positive change: "I would say that over the past three years [when the new machines were installed], the snacking habits of our student body have definitely become a lot healthier."

One student, Mizuki Nishiyama, 14, eats a snack a day from the vending machines on campus. She brings fruit from home, but before she used to go to the vending machines every day for a pack of chocolate chip cookies. "Now the cookies in the machines are oatmeal so I don't get the cookies any more ... now I usually get the sun bites, pretzels or fruit nuggets."

But not everyone is willing to give up junk food. Jared Itkowitz, is an assistant vice-president at Barclays Bank, says at his last job in New York his office only had healthy vending machines. In Hong Kong, the Health Addiction machine is next to a more typical snack machine.

Itkowitz says he eats at least one snack a day. In New York, where he only had healthy options, it was a healthier snack, but when asked about his snack of choice in Hong Kong, a guilty smile crosses his face: "I like the cheese pretzels, sometimes candy. Something sweet and something salty; you know you have to mix it up a little bit."

Snacking may seem of little consequence but studies have shown that a person's snack choices have a large effect on their overall nutrition. A study by the University of Cincinnati published in the International Quarterly of Community Health Education found that snacking made up a large part of schoolchildren's daily caloric intake: children in the study consumed about 300 calories a day from snack foods, nearly 17 per cent of their daily calorie consumption, this compared to just 45 calories from fruit and vegetables.

Dietitians like Mimi Li are in agreement that snacks are a valuable part of a well-balanced diet. They provide calories, improve metabolism and supply energy in those long stretches between meals.

But what is a healthy snack? According to Li, a healthy snack should "contain carbohydrates and be low in fat". She agrees with some of the snack choices in Health Addiction vending machines, but is less impressed with the drinks: "Most of the drinks in the machines are high in sugar, like coconut water and the fruit smoothie drinks."

There are other issues with Health Addiction. Most snacks cost between HK$10 and HK$24, making them significantly more expensive than their unhealthy alternatives. And, due to limited snack options and popular pressure, the definition of "healthy" has become broader while their machines remain in direct competition with machines selling more familiar junk food.

Health Addiction won't single-handedly turn back the tide of obesity in Hong Kong, nor will it make kids less in love with candy, but maybe, by presenting an alternative and drawing attention to the snacking choices we make, it can start to change our ingrained snacking habits.

Still, nutritionists and educators agree the cheapest snack solution is still the best for you: bring some fruits, vegetables, or nuts from home and wash them down with some water.