Vending machines, one of the icons of the company break room, will soon be required to show nutritional information on the goodies inside. A pilot project between the Iowa Department of Public Health and Iowa State University Extension has developed a system designed to meet that requirement.

While you can see the choices behind the glass, Carol Voss of the Health Department, says it’s not easy to know exactly what you’re getting until you’ve made the purchase. Voss says the disadvantage you have at a vending machine, is that you can’t see the nutrition labels on the products, “and many times you’re led astray by the marketing of different manufacturers and the terminology they use in thinking that product is healthy, without actually seeing that information.”

The new federal “Affordable Care Act” will require all vendors who have more than 20 vending machines to display calorie information for each food or beverage item. Voss says they solved that problem by creating a visual system that rates and labels the products in a machine.

She says they use a traffic light system where green is the healthiest choice, yellow is a healthy choice, but you should be cautious how many you eat. And red is not a healthy choice. The ratings are based on the standards set for nutrition for kids in schools. Before cupcake and candy bar lovers get up in arms — Voss says the idea isn’t to ban those things from vendo land — it’s to help consumers make good choices.

“We’re not saying to convert the entire machine, we’re thinking that when they go to the vending machine, they should have the opportunity to buy healthy choices if they desire,” Voss says. The two-year pilot project will start with state-owned buildings and the vending machines at state rest stops. Voss says they’ll be studying how the labeling system works and if that encourages people to select the healthier snacks.

Voss says they will also do some social messaging to promote the healthier snacks, and at the end of the two years they hope to institute a policy for state buildings that a minimum of 30% of the snacks in the machines will meet the healthy criteria. The Iowa project is funded through a $112,550 grant from the Welmark Foundation.

The F.D.A. is required by the federal health care law to issue proposed regulations for vending machine labeling by March 23rd.