A story in the USA caught my eye because it raises bigger questions about how food is marketed to us as consumers, whether we are adults or, more worryingly, children – and how the true meaning of the word ‘healthy’ is being misused and mis-appropriated by marketers.
A company in America is creating a stir with ‘healthy’ vending machines, so much so that they are now working with schools across the USA to implement the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiative, ‘Smart Snacks in School’ which sets definitive guidelines for the calorie, fat and sugar content of all snacks sold in schools.
So far so good, as visions of a fresh apple, yoghurt or hummus snack pot popping out of school vending machines flashed through my mind. So I researched more about this innovative company – and then found myself wondering if that really is the sort of food that will be dispensed to hungry students? It also begs the question, what actually is ‘healthy’ food, and what message are these machines going to give to impressionable young minds?
The company behind these machines is called H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending, which stands for ‘Helping Unite Man And Nutrition’ – and as their name indicates, their marketing is spot on.
Founded in 2008, the company supplies vending machines filled with a choice of ‘healthy, low-fat, gluten-free, organic or locally produced healthy snacks’ instead of the usual vending machine tucker, in environmentally friendlier machines that are bigger than normal vending machines, but require less electricity to run. (The image on the left is from a screen shot of their website).
The machines have an LCD screen that displays nutritional information about the products, along with some advertising, and the company runs on a franchise basis, with the franchisee picking the products from a list supplied by H.U.M.A.N.. There are currently 1,000 of these machines across 40 states in America, and in Canada and Puerto Rico too, and in-tune with their socially-responsible marketing, their website says H.U.M.A.N. give 10% of their profits to obesity related charities.
The company was billed as one to watch in 2011 by Forbes and CNN Money, and is in this year’s Food Navigator USA top 10 food and beverage entrepreneurs to watch. However, a quick search online also brings up blogs and tweets questioning how healthy the snacks in these machines really are – since they include processed items like flavoured water with a high sugar content, Kellogg’s Nutrigrain bars and Kettle brand chips
Of course I don’t know if these are the products H.U.M.A.N. plans on putting in their school vending machines, and I sincerely hope they are not. My fear is that in today’s highly advertised, product-driven, marketing-focused world, the wool can often be pulled over our eyes. ‘Healthier’ in this case, is not ‘healthy’ – and processed snacks should not be promoted as ‘healthy’ foods to children in schools. A biscuit is still a biscuit whether it is gluten-free or organic – it is not a piece of fresh fruit, a wholegrain sandwich, falafel with a humus dip, or a mixed bean salad.
Truly healthy food is real food – fresh, unprocessed food without artificial flavourings, preservatives, sweeteners, or highly processed or refined oils and sugars. That is real message the USDA initiative should be promoting in schools because let’s face it, unless fresh, nutritionally nourishing food is popping out of these machines, there is nothing human about them at all.
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