The Great Vending Machine Boondoggle

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Parents and teachers (as well as public health professionals) are understandably concerned about the recent rise in obesity among young Americans. Just as understandable is the desire to do something to stem the tide. One action, embraced by a number of schools across the nation (including the New York City school system), is substituting supposedly "healthier" foods for so-called "junk" foods and beverages in school vending machines.

In the latest such move, the Kentucky legislature plans to ban chips and candy bars and replace them with more wholesome offerings like granola bars. Has anyone in Kentucky looked at the calories in a granola bar lately? One granola bar can contain anywhere from 90 to 150 calories. Since one ounce of full-fat potato chips has about 110 150 calories, depending on brand, there is virtually no difference in calories between them and the granola bars. And there are already various chips on the market that contain less fat and therefore fewer calories -- a no-fat version can have as little as 75 calories per ounce.

One dietitian cited in the news report impressed the legislators by showing them the total amount of sugar a person would consume if they drank one twenty-ounce soft drink every day for a month. If she had shown them the amount of sugar in twenty ounces of orange or grape juice consumed daily for a month, I'll bet that also would have astounded them.

No one argues that a serving of most 100% juices is nutritionally superior to a soft drink, but that's not really the issue that is supposedly being addressed. As we've pointed out more than once on this site, we are seeing the confusion of two issues, better nutrition and obesity. Increased body weight results from taking in more calories than one burns -- and it doesn't make a real difference if the calories are from granola or potato or corn chips.

Changing offerings in school vending machines are feel-good moves that likely won't contribute to solving the problem of increasing obesity in children. Until we have solid information about what changes might help, it would seem more appropriate to hold off making sweeping changes.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.