The healthy voice in providing choice

The consumer demand for choice in vended snack products is growing in hospitals. Jonathan Hart, of the Automatic Vending Association, explains the steps the vending industry is taking to meet the expectations of a more health conscious nation.

Most retailers know that, in this day and age, providing consumers with choice has never been so important, especially when it comes to helping them maintain a healthy diet. The big retailers have already taken very visible steps to support the healthier choices of consumers and their families. For example, in 2014 Lidl and then Tesco removed unhealthy snacks from their checkouts and other supermarket chains including Aldi and Sainsbury’s followed suit.

Research by Mintel in April 2016 also found a strong consumer demand for healthier, lower sugar snacks, with 70 per cent of respondents agreeing that manufacturers should do more to reduce the sugar in their snacks.

The sugar content of snacks and drinks has been a particular focus of the nation and media in recent months, with the recent announcement that a ‘tax’ on sugary drinks would be introduced.

The Automatic Vending Association (AVA) has had healthy vending at the top of its agenda for quite some time, proactively working with a number of partners including health organisations and universities to do what it can to shape a snacking landscape that responds to the growing consumer demand for wider product choice.

The AVA works hard to ensure its members are always one step ahead of trends and consumer demands and are altering product ranges in response to this.This is especially important in vending as vending machines are limited on the number of different products they can stock in contrast to larger retail outlets, such as supermarkets.

The AVA is producing a set of Healthy Vending Guidelines for its members, encouraging them to consider moving away from just traditional vending, and think of stocking more low fat, low sugar and low calorie products.

Standing up to Sugar Tax
During the last 12 months, there have been numerous national news stories around the health risks of consuming too much sugar, including reports that revealed the amount of ‘hidden sugar’ in fizzy drinks and also hot drinks served at high street coffee shops.

Increasing focus on sugar content has led many influential experts and organisations, including Cancer Research and the UK Health Forum, to back the introduction of a sugar tax.

In March 2016, as part of the Chancellor’s Budget announcement, the UK government announced that it was planning to take action against the high quantities of sugar found in certain drinks, by placing a tax on the sugary drinks industry for drinks that contain more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, with an even higher tax being placed on those that contain over 8g of sugar per 100ml. In the Queen’s Speech in May, it was announced that the sugar tax would be introduced in April 2018.

The AVA, which has long been working to provide more education and choice around snacks, takes the position that more priority should be placed on enhancing education and understanding around nutrition and the importance of following a healthy, balanced diet which can include treats in moderation.

Vending machines in hospitals
Like all retail environments, vending machines are there to provide a choice of products in line with current consumer demands – meaning they stock what people want to buy, where there is a need for their service.
Vending is a 24-hour, secure, unattended, convenient option ideal for locations like hospitals where vending is relied on by staff, patients and visitors for food and drinks round the clock.

In Wales and Scotland, the products sold in vending machines in hospitals have been regulated since 2008, ensuring contents that are high in sugar or calories are controlled. In Scotland, all vending machines must be stocked with at least 30 per cent ‘healthy’ products. Demand and tastes are of course always changing too, and healthy snacks are becoming more widespread in vending machines all over the UK, and this includes those in hospitals.

In England, the Automatic Vending Association recently met with the Hospital Caterers Association to discuss working together to widen the product offering in hospital vending machines further. The AVA is keen to ensure it works effectively with hospitals to ensure their vending machines cater for a range of dietary requirements including low sugar, low fat, low calorie along with other requirements such as high fibre and gluten free.

However, it is not just vending machines that hospitals should regulate. In February 2016, campaign group Action on Sugar found that high street cafe’s hot drinks contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar. Many of the offending high street coffee shops also have outlets located in hospitals. These should have similar restrictions to those affecting vending machines to ensure an ‘even playing field’, and better transparency when it comes to any high sugar or ‘unhealthy’ products that are served in hospitals.

Shaping the snacking landscape of the future
Despite this growing consumer demand for healthier options, reports show that the majority of retail snacks are still high in fat, sugar and/or calories. Mintel’s April 2016 research shows that just 11 per cent of snack products launched in the UK in 2015 had a low, no or reduced sugar claim, whilst eight per cent carried a low, no or reduced fat claim and just four per cent carried a low, no or reduced calorie claim, suggesting there is still a long way to go to ensure more healthy snacks are available to consumers.

Amy Price, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, sees this as a window of opportunity for retailers and product developers.

She said: “This suggests that exploring healthier formats in these areas could be a way to appeal to snackers.”

The AVA has long recognised this need too, and has been actively involved in driving awareness and education around healthier snacking options, that are also suitable for vending, for some time.

For the last three years, the AVA has worked with Culinary Arts Management students at University College Birmingham to co-run a module called the Culinary Product Development Challenge.

The module challenges students to create alternative, new healthy vending snacks that are calorie controlled.

In 2015, the Culinary Product Development Challenge’s winning team – called TOP’D – produced a delicious, healthy polenta‑based snack to win.

The creative students used gluten-free
polenta grains to make a crunchy shortbread base topped with a range of British dessert‑inspired flavours to meet the brief of a snack that was under 400 calories and wheat free.

The AVA plans to continue working with UCB in the years to come, ensuring it is playing a key part in educating the product developers of the future about creating a wider range of snacks that respond to the growing consumer demand for healthy snack products.

Health options in vending are also exhibited at the AVA’s biannual vending event AVEX. At AVEX 2015 a Health and Wellbeing Zone was created, featuring 11 stands promoting healthier vended products. The new zone was created in support of the growing number of vended products that are calorie controlled or specially tailored to meet a range of dietary requirements and offered a great opportunity for the industry and visitors to the event to learn more about popular healthy snack products.

The Health and Wellbeing Zone was a huge success, and as a result, it will be a feature of AVEX 2017, due to take place at NEC Birmingham in September 2017, ensuring that awareness and education around healthy vending options and snacking continues to grow.

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