The Junk Food Tax at This Vending Machine? 25 Seconds of Your Time

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You’ve heard of junk food taxes, right? Extra taxes on sugary sodas and high-calorie junk food are sometimes used as a way to fight obesity.

Well, this invention takes that idea one step further.

It’s an experimental vending machine that makes you wait about half a minute before it’ll vend the typical processed snacks like Cheetos or Doritos.

Here’s the kicker: Healthier snacks come out instantly.

Ooooooooohhh, snap. Decisions, decisions.

The nerve of this vending machine! This… this brainless machine is trying to influence our human behavior. Surely that wouldn’t work, would it?

Should I Get a Snickers Bar or Some Granola?

Turns out it really does work — at least a little bit.

We heard about this from an NPR story. An associate professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago invented a device that fits inside vending machines and waits 25 seconds before releasing processed snacks like Lay’s potato chips or a Mr. Goodbar. Meanwhile, healthier fare like peanuts or popcorn drops immediately.

The vending machine tells you this right off the bat. A decal on its display window informs customers they’ll have to wait for less-healthy snacks.

“Think of it as a sort of ‘time tax,’” the article suggested. “The idea is that every second you spend waiting for a snack will make you want it less, similar to how a tax on sugary drinks might get you to buy less soda.”

Brad Appelhans, associate professor of preventative medicine, created DISC, or Delays to Influence Snack Choice, to test the idea. For months, he installed his invention in vending machines around the university. He presented his findings last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine.

What happened? “We saw a roughly 5 percent change in the proportion of healthy snacks,” he told NPR. The change “is not huge, but if you are to extrapolate this out across 1 million vending machines and over time, it could add up to something meaningful.”

Why does this change the snacking behavior of 1 out of 20 hungry people? Maybe they just don’t want to wait. Maybe being forced to make this choice guilts them into making a healthier decision. Maybe the decal and the waiting period call their attention to healthier options.

“Healthy” snacks were those that met 5 out of 7 standards. Those standards included:

  • Having less than 250 calories, 350 mg of sodium or 10 mg of added sugars per serving. 
  • Containing no trans fats, which are common in certain processed snack foods. 
  • Getting less than 35% of their calories from fat.

Appelhans also tried charging more for junk food than healthy snacks, but he found the vending machines made less money that way. In contrast, the 25-second waiting period didn’t affect the vending machines’ bottom line.

It remains to be seen whether this invention will ever become widely used and suddenly appear in a vending machine in your workplace.

On the one hand — hey, healthier snacks. On the other hand, it might just enrage someone and increase their odds of taking a baseball bat to the machine.

Just some food for thought.

Your Turn: What do you think of this idea? C’mon, be honest.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He doesn’t like to wait.

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