An X-ray of the vending machines

A study by the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country analyses, from a nutritional perspective, the food offered by the vending machines

  • Research

First publication date: 02/08/2021

Naiara Martínez
A study by the UPV/EHU analyses the food offered by the university's vending machines. Photo: Jorge Navarro. UPV/EHU.

The UPV/EHU’s Sustainable Diet research group has concluded in a study that almost half of the products in the vending machines are of low nutritional quality and three quarters are ultra-processed. In addition, they have found that foods and beverages of low nutritional quality are the cheapest and are promoted more often than the rest.

Due to the high prevalence of obesity and overweight, experts on the subject say that steps need to be taken to prevent these disorders. "It has been shown that one of the ways of achieving this goal is to promote health in organisational environments such as universities," said Naiara Martínez Pérez, lecturer in the UPV/EHU's Department of Nursing. To do this, "before embarking on any kind of intervention, it is necessary to know the situation. In this study in particular, we gathered information on the food offered by the university’s vending machines because they are easy to access, are present in practically all the faculties and centers, and the products are generally cheap", added Naiara Martínez.

Moreover, "Spain is one of the European leaders in the use of vending machines, with one machine for every 80 inhabitants, whereas the European average is one for every 180 inhabitants. Given the absence of data on the nutritional value of the food and beverages sold in vending machines in European universities, and on other determining factors in the consumption of these items, plus the importance of this sector in Spain, it is necessary to obtain scientific data on this subject," said the researcher.

"The aim of this work was to evaluate the food products available in vending machines at the UPV/EHU, by paying special attention to their nutritional profile and level of processing, and to investigate the differences in nutritional profile in terms of cost and promotion," said the researcher from the UPV/EHU’s Sustainable Diet research group. "The display of items in the machine, assessed in accordance with marketing criteria, is a new tool for analysing product promotion; it has not been used before in vending machine evaluation studies," she added.

Food preferences, prices and promotion

All the vending machines across all the Faculties and Centres of the UPV/EHU to which the students routinely have access were analysed. A total of 202 machines, located across the three campuses (35 in Álava, 65 in Gipuzkoa and 102 in Bizkaia). The data on the available products were analysed on the basis of the criteria of the Spanish Agency for Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Nutrition (AECOSAN) and the UK Department of Health as they are among the most widely used models. The items were also classified according to the level of industrial processing. And lastly, information on the price of each product was recorded and the promotion of each product was evaluated in terms of its location inside the machines.

According to the results, "the best-selling products are sweets (23.4 % of total choices), coffee (20.3 %) and savoury snacks (11.7 %)", said Martínez. In addition, "we observed that the nutritional quality of the food tends to be low; 48.6 % of the products were classified as being of low nutritional quality", she added. “In terms of the level of processing of the products," said the co-author of the study, "73.8 % of the items were classified as ultra-processed".

In addition to tastes and food preferences, other factors that can influence consumers' purchases from vending machines are price and promotion. Firstly, "this study has confirmed that foods and beverages of high nutritional quality are more likely to be more expensive", said Naiara Martínez.

Secondly, with regard to the location of the items in the machines, "we saw that both foods and beverages that support healthy dietary recommendations are promoted to a lesser extent than those with a lower nutritional profile", stressed Naiara Martínez. For example, "one is unlikely to find a portion of fruit in the centre of the machines or at eye level; foods of higher nutritional quality tend to be positioned in one of the corners of the machine, in the lower part in general... where they are difficult to see or at least difficult to locate", said the UPV/EHU lecturer.

Additional information

This work is in the framework of the context of a project of the Campus Bizia Lab programme, funded by the Vice-Rectorate for Students and Employability of the UPV/EHU, the Basque Government (2016) and the Vice-Rectorate for Innovation, Social Commitment and Cultural Action of the UPV/EHU (through a programme-contract with the Basque Government) (17ARRO, 18ARRO, 19ARRO and 20ARRO). The Campus Bizia Lab programme is an initiative that emerged out of the Erasmus University Educators for Sustainable Development Project (540051-llp-1-2013-1) in which the UPV/EHU participated between 2013-2016. This project aims to trigger a collaborative process between teaching staff, administrative and service staff and students (transdisciplinary approach) in order to respond to sustainability challenges within the University itself.

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