Student Nikki Orozova relies on vending machines at Brooklyn College for afternoon snacks. (Michelle Cummings)

By MICHELLE CUMMINGS

It’s noon and you’ve been on campus for an hour. You didn’t eat lunch because you woke up late and did not have time to stop on the way.  Now, you’re trapped in class on an empty stomach until the 2:15 p.m. break. There is a vending machine just down the hall, fully stocked with goodies to tide you over. When the break finally arrives you make your selection and then horror of horrors, it gets stuck. The little spiral holding your item didn’t turn enough for the product to drop.

Alas, another student faces up to the afternoon rush for sugar.

For all the discussion on campus about good health and nutrition, colleges continue to sell snacks to students that are too high in sugar and salt, and don’t seem especially eager to provide healthy alternatives. Larger sizes for soda allow for higher prices, of course, and although bottled water is also offered, its price is similarly high.  Options matter.

Researchers at Boston University recently published a study that shows excess sugar, especially from sugary drinks, can cause brain damage.  According to the study, titled “Sugary Beverage Intake and Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease in the Community,” soda is linked to brain shrinkage.

The most recent research from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS) suggests that people who drink sugary beverages frequently are more likely to have poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume and a significantly smaller hippocampus, an area of the brain linked to learning and memory.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 39 teaspoons of sugar per day, three pounds per week and up to 13 pounds in one month.  That’s 155 pounds per year, much of it in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, sports drinks, iced tea and energy drinks.  The American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons of sugar for men and six teaspoons for women per day.

On third floor of Boylan Hall, the Georgian-style building that houses Brooklyn College’s administration and many classrooms, the Pepsi vending machine is filled with 20-ounce bottles of sugary drinks.  The Grape Crush has 71 grams of sugar, or about twice what experts say should be the maximum daily intake for men, and three times that for women. The Mountain Dew has 77 grams. Further down in the display, there are iced teas and juices that have less sugar – 33 grams for Brisk – but still well beyond anything that can be called healthy.

Sugar makes life sweeter.  However, added sugar provides essentially no nutritional value.  So, what is the difference between good and bad sugar?  The American Heart Association defines healthy as naturally occurring “good sugar found in fruits and veggies.”  When coupled with fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, sugar is a great source of energy.  Bad sugar is characterized by empty calories.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines healthy:

  • Fewer calories (less than 40 for snacks and cereals, less than 150 for candy)
  • Limited added sugar (less than 5 grams)
  • Lower fat (less than 3 grams per serving)
  • Healthier fats
  • No trans fats
  • No artificial colors or flavors
  • Lower sodium (less than 140 milligrams per serving)

Empty calories in beverages and highly processed, packaged products is what you’ll find hiding in vending machines on most college campuses.  The lack of healthy snacks is cause for concerns for some.

“Sugary snacks are not conducive to a learning environment,” said Maxinee Black-Arias, dean of nursing at the Manhattan-based Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences.

Offering convenient and nutritious options is no small task.  Students have very little time between classes to stop by a cafeteria. Since hunger interferes with concentration, vending machines often save the day.

Some students would like more culturally relevant choices. Amber Ferrin, a junior at Brooklyn College, prefers plantain chips to potato chips.  Ferrin is also concerned about price.  Ferrin said, “75 cents for a tiny bag with like five chips in it versus a $2 larger bag with mostly air.  Really?  We need a happy medium.”

“There are no real choices in the vending machines, just junk,” said Black-Arias.  “As leaders and proponents of health we must model better eating habits.  Providing students with convenient, healthier food options shows we value nutrition and student’s overall health.”

But some options are available, said Joe Gallopini, director of food service at Metropolitan Food Services at Brooklyn College. “We offer healthy items like nuts, but they don’t sell nearly as well as candy and chips,” he said. Gallopini says that for some, vending machines often become the go-to snack source and that the choices made are not always the healthiest.  “People who rely on vending machines are not the same people concerned about healthy snacks,” he said. “These are two very different consumers.”

Excess sugar consumption is linked to higher risk of heart disease.  As national intake has increased, so have obesity levels.  The Centers for Disease Control reportsthere are 86 million pre-diabetics in America and 29 million living with Type 2 diabetes.  “The biggest problem we face today is overweight people. It is especially true for young adults. Gen X and Gen Y are the unhealthiest generations of young people and will likely tax the healthcare system with future obesity-related illness,” Black-Arias says.

According to the Healthy CUNY 2011 report, the consensus was that all would like to see healthier options in campus vending machines.  Improvement such as snacks and chips that had been reformulated to have fewer calories, less saturated and trans fat, and/or salt were made. “In the past we have tried carrying healthier snacks like pop-corn, nuts, Nature Valley granola bars and Wheat Thins after the students complained, but then the product didn’t move,” said Gallopini.

About two years ago, students started a petition calling for healthier options in the vending machines at Brooklyn College.  “Students need to know the power they have when they voice their frustrations collectively,” Diedra Brisco, Brooklyn College journalism major and senior, said. “There is strength in numbers.”

Metropolitan Food Service manages 100 standard vending machines on Brooklyn College campus. FastCorp Vending provides ice cream vending machines.  What they do not have is a refrigerated machine that stocks healthier alternatives.  Nutritious snack options such as fruit cups, hummus, cheese, Greek yogurt, kefir, chocolate covered nuts and organically dried fruit require refrigeration.

Demand for a healthier version of the vending machine may be met with surprising receptivity. Gallopini said that to change the vending machine options to add healthier snacks, “Just ask, we’ll stock it.”  He said Metropolitan is open to brand-specific products and suggestions compatible with the current machines on the Brooklyn College campus.

One of the biggest challenges is meeting the needs of everyone. According to Carl Jeff of Vendrite, it is possible to offer students healthier snack choices without sacrificing convenience or taste.  “The future of vending may rest in micro markets,” he said. “Reimagine a commissary-type micro market as an opportunity to effect significant change in the daily lives of most on the go students.”

Micro markets are a new food service option.  Fair trade snacks, unsweetened beverages and fresh fruit are available 24/7 in a self-service system at Virginia Science and Tech.

Trips to the vending machines are inevitable.  Can they be made healthier?  In a study, published in the International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health in 2014, researchers conducted an experiment with 200 college students. Scientists replaced high-sugar, salt and fat snacks sold in two campus vending machines with healthier options to find out how students responded.  The results suggest students who were aware of the healthier snack choices were excited to have alternatives. Promoting healthier choices did not affect sales.

“Students will consume what is available,” Black-Arias said. “ If we can influence this behavior with better choices, we can consider that winning.”