Everyone in the family is starving, and your only food source is a vending machine. Chips or candy?Cheese popcorn or Chex Mix? We asked a leading nutritionist which buttons to push

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

Hidden Heroes

Minimally processed, these snacks make the grade

Though almost half of the calories in this trail mix come from fat, it's monounsaturated fat, which helps lower LDL—the "bad" cholesterol.

Here's the ounce of nuts you should eat each day, and the 115 milligrams of sodium is reasonable—2,300 milligrams should be your daily limit.

This popcorn is a whole grain, plus the vegetable oils used are rich in polyunsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL cholesterol.

You Could Do Worse

These second-tier choices have some redeeming qualities

The first ingredient, granola, consists of whole-grain rolled oats and wheat. Still, not many vitamins or minerals.

While not exactly low in salt, these pretzels, made of unbleached wheat flour, actually have far less sodium than most other pretzels.

Made with whole-grain oats and enriched flour, this bar offers riboflavin, calcium, and vitamin B6. But the filling is loaded with sugar.

Pure Junk—Best to Avoid

If you cave, don't eat any other garbage for the rest of the day

Sure, the 2.17 ounces of Skittles are low in fat and provide 50 percent of your daily vitamin C—but they also pack 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Though they're just 200 calories, the six peanut-butter crackers contain 400 milligrams of sodium and 2 grams of trans fat.

Eat both Pop-Tarts, and you'll net 400 calories, 34 grams of sugar, and 320 milligrams of sodium. Make another choice, kid.

M&M's Peanut Chocolate Candies vs. M&M's Almond Chocolate Candies
The almonds just edge out the peanuts since they're slightly lower in calories (200 vs. 250) and have less saturated fat (3.5 grams vs. 5 grams). Both are way better than plain M&M's.

Goldfish Baked Snack Crackers (Cheddar Flavor) vs. Chex Mix
Both have 210 calories, but go for the Goldfish, which have far less sodium (360 milligrams vs. 620 milligrams) and a tad more protein (5 grams vs. 4 grams).

Fig Newtons vs. SnackWells Creme Sandwich Cookies
The 2-oz. Fig Newtons are a better choice because they have fewer calories and less fat than the 1.7-oz. cookies—even though they also have more sugar.

Dipsy Doodles (Wavy Corn Chips) vs. Ridgies Sour Cream & Onion (Ridged Potato Chips)
Pick the potato chips for fewer calories and less fat. The corn in most corn chips is so processed that the whole-grain benefits are all but wiped out.