Food Making it rain chili cheese Fritos may be healthier than eating them, as reporter Josh Hafner demonstrates.

Making it rain chili cheese Fritos may be healthier than eating them, as reporter Josh Hafner demonstrates.

The vending machine lunch dilemma

Published on April 1st, 2014 | by Josh Hafner

Whenever I step up to a vending machine, I see a little bit of myself.

That’s partly because the glass between me and all that processed glory is reflective. It’s also because I grew up on junk food. Doritos. Cheetos. Fritos. And those are just the powdered cheese ones.

But I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 25. My metabolism is fading. But sometimes — on a day full of deadlines or when I plumb forget a lunch — I’ve no choice but to drop a few quarters, hit a couple of buttons and pray I don’t feel like garbage by 2 p.m.

If you have to eat lunch out of an office vending machine, what’s the healthiest choice? Mary Dutcher, a registered dietician with Unity Point in West Des Moines, took a look at the fourth-floor vending machine in our offices and gave us her thoughts.

“When your only choice is a vending machine, it’s hard to get an option that’s healthy,” Dutcher said. “It has to be shelf stable.”

Vending machine contents break down into three general categories: snacks with too much salt, snacks with too much sugar, and gum.

New machines are making strides toward healthy options, true.

But Dutcher looked at ours and immediately nixed the bottom two rows, the ones stocked with candy. “If you’re going to choose a candy bar, I would probably choose M&M peanuts. At least you’re getting peanuts,” she said, noting the nuts’ healthy fats.

That left four rows of chips, crackers and cookies. “The frosted chocolate doughnuts are definitely not a good choice,” Dutcher said.

The worst item in the whole machine, per our expert: Fritos Chili Cheese corn chips. The salty, dark-orange bespeckled strips are very high in fat, she said: 9 grams worth, or half the bag’s 320 calories.

The best chips? Baked Lays. 110 calories. Not fried. The best sweet option? Austin Zoo Animal Crackers. “It has sugar, but it’s not high sugar, and it’s low fat.”

The best meal from our machine, Dutcher decided: A pairing of Kar’s Yogurt Apple Nut Mix with Belvita breakfast biscuits.

Anything with nuts is good for a protein boost, and this particular mix contained dry fruit. Every bit helps. The Belvita biscuits contained whole grains.

Grand caloric total: 680, about right for my build. It was the best of a bad lunch situation.

“None of these are great choices,” Dutcher warned, “but that would be a better choice than Oreo cookies.”

About the Author

covers young professionals for The Des Moines Register. Josh can be reached at or on Twitter via @joshhafner.

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