Vending machines: No matter where you go — a seedy motel, an airport or a luxury-car dealership — they’re there, and there’s always the same stale shit in them. Most of it is nutritional garbage, so if you’re hungry but too lazy or time-crunched to go searching for real food, it can be tempting to stand in front of one, trying to guess what’s terrible for you and what’s slightly less terrible for you.
To make this process easier, we talked to professional nutritionist Jason Boehm, who weighed in on the least-worst options from my nearest vending machine — the one at my friend’s office, supplied by First Class Vending.
But first, a general note on vending machine fare: “Almost everything [in a vending machine] is high in carbohydrates, which your body is going to convert to sugar and store as fat,” Boehm says. “That proves true regardless of how many calories or whatever this food has.” An even bigger problem, he adds, is that junk food has a way of convincing your body to crave more of it. “What’s going to happen is insulin will pull your blood sugar down, but too often it overcompensates and pulls it down too low,” Boehm says. “The result is you feel tired, yet oddly crave more of that food you ate an hour before.”
There, you’ve been warned.
But if you must eat out of these things, here’s Boehm’s rundown of their contents, ranked best(ish) to worst. And please note: We haven’t included calorie counts, because as we mentioned, calories are the least of your concerns when it comes to vending machine food.
1) Pepe’s Chicharones: A fat bag of pork rinds might be a surprising item to top a list of “healthy” vending machine snacks, but bear with us. Basically, everything else in here has lots of sugar, or at least carbohydrates. These, on the other hand, have a lot of protein, a bit of fat and no sugar whatsoever. Who knew?
2) Mr. Nature Energizer Mix Unsalted Trail Mix: The next best thing you can find in a vending machine is nuts. They contain protein and healthy oils, and they’re also filling, meaning you’ll be less likely to go back for more. Just be wary of trail mix that has candy in it.
3) 180 Degrees Almond Cashew Clusters: It’s mostly nuts, although they’re admittedly held together with some sugar. Also: These are tasty. Just sayin’.
4) Munch Peanut Bar: Again, it’s peanuts held together with sugar, only more of it. At least there’s not much else in it that’s bad for you.
5) Peanut M&Ms: A perfect illustration of just how shockingly unhealthy a vending machine is: If you coat a bag of peanuts with chocolate and sugar, a nutritionist will still rank it in the top five.
6) Snickers: Yes, a candy bar. The nuts in a Snickers bat give it a bit of protein and fat which, again, redeems it relative to most everything else.
7) Maruchan Chicken-Flavor Instant Ramen: It has some protein and a bit of fat thanks to the chicken broth, but not as much as you’d get from the peanuts in the Snickers bar. And although it has far less sugar than the candy, it does have a ton of unhealthy sodium.
8) Corn Nuts BBQ: Corn Nuts outrank chips due to their small amounts of fiber and protein. (These aren’t actually nuts, BTW, hence not being up with the other nut products; they’re deep-fried corn kernels.)
9) Popchips: These reconstituted, heated-and-pressurized, potato-like snacks have slightly fewer calories and sodium than typical chips. But they aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, “healthy.”
10) Ruffles Oven Baked Chips/Lays Oven Baked Chips: The Ruffles and Lays baked chips are essentially the same thing, aside from the texture: Similar calories, sodium and carbohydrate amounts. The thing with all chips, though, according to Boehm, is that even though they don’t technically contain much sugar, your body converts all the carbohydrates in the potato into sugar, so you’re still screwed.
11) Munchies Flamin’ Hot: Just slightly fewer calories and sodium than Doritos, but otherwise pretty similar in carbohydrates.
12) Doritos Nacho Cheese chips/Fritos Chili Cheese chips: Doritos and Fritos are similar in having higher amounts of sodium than many other chips, likely due to their exotic, unnatural flavorings (which we dug into more here).
13) Chex Mix: Fewer calories and the same amount of sodium as Doritos and Fritos, but more carbohydrates. Plus, nobody likes every single item in the mix (the rye chips, in particular, can be as divisive as broccoli).
14) Wheat Thins Veggie Toasted Chips: Don’t be fooled by the pictures of vegetables on the packaging — pictures of salt shakers would be way more appropriate. These have more sodium than Doritos, and in every other respect, aren’t much different.
15) Cheez-It: If they taste good to you, it’s probably because of how much sodium is in them (a lot). Beyond that, there’s not a lot separating them from chips.
16) Nature Valley Oats ‘n’ Honey bars: Sorry, but these granola-like snacks are basically well-marketed candy bars. They have more calories than chips (albeit slightly less sodium), a lot of sugar and almost no fiber. They’re also messy AF.
17) Pop Tarts Frosted Strawberry: Basically a cookie, but with slightly fewer calories, carbohydrates and saturated fat. Must be all those “strawberries” inside, huh?
18) Knotts Berry Farm Raspberry Shortbread cookies/ Sunmaid Oatmeal Raisin Apple cookies: “Cookies are also basically candy bars,” Boehm says. These shortbread and raisin cookies are mostly identical, being only slightly better than the chocolate chip option. Which brings us to…
19) Cappuccino Chocolate Chip cookies: Similar to the other cookies, but with twice the saturated fat (that’s the bad kind) thanks to those chocolate chips.
20) Peanut Butter M&Ms: Candy is a terrible thing to eat when you’re hungry, since it’s all sugar that won’t give you any worthwhile energy — but you already knew that. At least these peanut butter-flavored M&Ms have slightly more protein than a Twix or a Milky Way — not that anyone eats Peanut Butter M&Ms for protein — but compared to their peanut butter-free colleagues, these are monstrous.
21) Twix/Milky Way: Candy bars are basically all sugar, which, as you may be coming to realize if you have a particular gift for pattern recognition, isn’t something nutritionists recommend. There’s also 35 percent of your recommended daily value of saturated fat in just one of these, along with absolutely zero nutritional value. Just go hungry—you’ll be better off.