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Food for Thought

New vending machine labeling encourages healthier eating habits on campus.


Vending machines provide a convenience at a price. And while the monetary price is quite small, the cost to our health over time may be much higher due to the inherent unhealthy nature of snack foods. But that may no longer be the case thanks to a new campus health initiative called Traffic Light Plus.

Traffic Light Plus signs will soon adorn all on-campus vending machines to provide food for thought before buying that favorite snack.

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The signs will compare snack options based on a set of nutritional criteria, including total fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, protein and fiber. The top 25 items (out of approximately 200 stocked in campus vending machines) have their healthiness ranked by a color-coded scale of green, yellow and red. The message is simple: Just as anyone would look to a traffic light to know whether to go (green), slow down (yellow) or stop (red), one should do the same before making a snack purchase.

The new information will give consumers a better understanding of the nutrition content of a variety of items in a way that is simple to understand. One doesn’t need to know how many grams of fat are too many. With Traffic Light Plus, if it’s red, it’s too many for most people. But that same item might be green when it comes to sugar or sodium, so it is important to look at the item comprehensively, which the system makes easy. The “Plus” in Traffic Light Plus comes from a desire to highlight items that have beneficial amounts of protein and/or fiber regardless of its fat, sodium and/or sugar content.

This step forward in on-campus healthy decision-making will be made possible thanks to the research of pharmacy students Rob Stahler and Shannon Kraus, under the advisement of pharmacy faculty Dr. Michael Rush and Dr. Karen Kier. Partnerships also exist with ONU HealthWise, the Office of Purchasing and Dining Services.
With high national averages of chronic obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and cholesterol, Stahler and Kraus’ research reflects a growing willingness to combat these issues.

“This project is great because we’re getting our hands dirty with actual published research as well as seeing it in effect, beyond just crunching numbers and making charts. We can see what an impact it might have on-campus,” says Stahler.

At ONU, campus-wide health initiatives are rapidly expanding, with ONU Healthwise programs geared towards employees and student fitness groups like Polar Fit becoming more popular. Traffic Light Plus continues the trend towards a healthier University community overall. While this project may be based on a student-led initiative, the project represents a culmination of an equally motivated administration, faculty and staff, and student body.

“I think everyone is working towards having a healthier community in general,” says Stahler. “We’re getting past people who are just OK with their day-to-day kind of ‘ignorance is bliss’ mindset. The reality is that we all need to be eating healthier.”

Moving forward in the coming months of research, the top 25 selling items in vending machines will be determined as they always have been—based on the choices of students, faculty and staff. Rather than eliminating unhealthy items from vending altogether, the choice will now be left up to the better-informed consumer.

So, the next time you are in a hurry to get to class and need a quick snack, take a few extra seconds and let Traffic Light Plus help you make a better choice.

—Steve Saunier
Senior, history major
Centerburg, Ohio