Let's face it: even if you're the most organized traveler, at some point you're going to find yourself desperately feeding dollars into candy machines, those ubiquitous purveyors of snacks packed with sugar, salt, fat, and enough preservatives to stay fresh until the next century. Fortunately, there's light at the end of the nutritional tunnel. Last year, the National Automatic Merchandising Association launched its "Balanced for Life" campaign, urging vending companies to offer more wholesome treats. The result: "some good choices" for families, says Dr. Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City. Ayoob, who himself has a weakness for almond M&M's, answers our questions about getting the healthiest bang for those candy-machine bucks.
"If we have no time for a restaurant, can we make a halfway-decent lunch out of vending-machine fare?"
The answer is a qualified yes—if you go for nuts (which are high in protein and contain vitamin E, potassium, and other minerals) and whole grains like popcorn (a good source of fiber and carbohydrates). A granola bar or trail mix will probably give you a combo of grains, nuts, and dried fruit—providing a shot of vitamins and minerals. Add a carton of milk, if you can, and finish off with a stick of gum, preferably sugarless, which doubles as a toothbrush and a distraction until you can get some real food into your systems.
"What candy should we let the kids have?"
A chocolate bar won't do much harm, and recent studies show that dark chocolate—which contains heart-healthy flavonols—may actually do some good. Avoid gooey, high-calorie extras. Chocolate with nuts is a better choice, though the paltry portion of nuts in most candies provides only trace amounts of the nutrients found in a regular serving of plain nuts. Ditto for dried fruit. There's only 2 percent of your daily iron in a pack of Raisinets.
What's going to keep us feeling full for awhile?"
A cereal bar or trail mix might do the trick, if dinner is only an hour away. But your best bet is popcorn, which has volume and fiber and more protein than almost any other grain, in addition to being a rich source of carbohydrates, antioxidants, B vitamins, and minerals. On the downside: most vending-machine popcorn is laden with saturated fats and salt. But drinking lots of water with the popcorn—and you'll probably need to—will help you feel sated.
Want more nutrition facts on vending-machine fare?
dietfacts.com lists snack ingredients
nutritiondata.com highlights pros and cons