Children's Nutrition Has a Growing Role in Formulation

The old Victorian aphorism, “Children should be seen and not heard,” once was the guiding principle of food formulation. No longer.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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A generation ago, formulating a food or beverage item for the elementary-school set meant sticking sugar in it, a cartoon character on it, then blitzing the TV cartoon hour with a flood of 120-decibel kid-beguiling ads. No more.

While some manufacturers still try to play that game, the recognition of children's discerning palates and special nutritional needs is steering most processors toward more proactive thinking when it comes to feeding our young.

“Many foods are made with the nutrition needs of adults in mind,” says Tara DelloIacono-Thies, nutritionist and “kid food coach” for Clif Bar & Co. (www.clifbar.com), Berkeley, Calif. “This ‘cookie-cutter’ approach of adults to kids doesn’t always translate when it comes to making healthy foods that meet the needs of our children. Kids have different needs and requirements than adults.”

 

Clif Bar & Co. designs its line of Clif Kids organic products for “kids in motion,” using whole grains and sweeteners such as fig paste, brown rice syrup and tapioca syrup.

When formulating the nutritional profile for Clif Kid products, DelloIacono-Thies looks at what nutrients kids ages 6-12 usually are lacking, such as iron and zinc, and focuses on helping meet the RDA needs.

Childhood represents a time of marked physical change and development, according to Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer for Fortitech Inc. (www.fortitech.com), Schenectady, N.Y. The company provides a variety of nutrient premixes targeting the health needs of children in formulated foods and beverages. “Because of differing food patterns and high requirement for certain nutrients in children compared to adults, children are at greater risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies of key nutrients,” he says.

As Chaudhari explains, the focus of nutrition during childhood is to provide adequate nutrients to meet requirements for growth and activity. “A well nourished child is not only healthier, but he or she is happier and performs better scholastically. It is now known that achieving optimal nutrient intakes during childhood also helps to reduce the risk of chronic diseases during adulthood, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.”

Sarah Staley, vice president of business development for Netherlands-based Friesland Foods Domo USA Inc. (www.domo.nl), concurs. “Companies face a dilemma in making foods that are acceptable, tastewise, for young children and nutritionally acceptable to the parents. In the teen years you see much more awareness of the link between food, nutrition and health -- that age group can understand that food is about more than what tastes good. [But] younger children will not eat a product they do not like just because it is good for them.”

When formulating for elementary school children, processors need to be aware of the nutritional needs vital for growing bodies, what the common deficiencies are, the balance between healthy growth vs. unhealthy weight gain, what will give additional benefits to support developing brains and bodies. How do you make your product meet the parent’s need for nutrition and the child’s taste preference?

Balancing the needs of the children, the interests of the parents and overall taste preferences presents the biggest challenges to processors. “There are nutrient gaps [that] reveal a pattern of weakness in children’s diets,” says Chaudhari. “The answer to this problem is not just to eat more food; there is a strong need to change the overall pattern of micronutrient intake in children. This may be achieved to some extent by encouraging the consumption of various nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables. However, as many parents know from first-hand experience, this approach often meets with limited success.

“The haphazard eating patterns of children often limit intake of certain key nutrients, causing worry for parents and possible less-than-optimal development for the child,” Chaudhari adds. “Increased availability of kid-targeted fortified food products could address this.” Chaudhari points out that, besides the obvious and oft-focused upon bones, other organs also are developing and changing rapidly across childhood.

To maximize bone development in children, many nutrients are needed, including calcium, phosphorus and magnesium — the key bone mineral components — and vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin K for bone metabolism.

Dietary iron should be sufficient to combat anemia, a surprisingly common ailment in young children. Whereas symptoms of childhood anemia — fatigue, lethargy, irritability, pale color, weakness, headaches and cold intolerance — can apply to many of today’s overworked kids, children exhibiting such symptoms for more than a day or kids who get infections on a frequent basis should be tested for anemia.

Anemia can produce behavioral, cognitive and psychomotor deficits, plus shortened attention span and concentration as well as a depress immune system. All lead to impaired scholastic performance, too.

Brain drain

The brain is perhaps the most crucial organ in childhood development. Insufficient macro- and micronutrients during the formative years have been firmly linked to lower intellect and cognitive delay. For this reason, manufacturers of kids’ foods have paid close attention to the research on omega-3 oils and their key roles in neural development and cognitive performance.

The “omegas for good brains” boom started with the recognition that, as with folate, these ingredients were critical to fetal nerve and brain development. Subsequent studies revealed the undeniable role the fatty acid compounds play throughout childhood growth and change, and through the whole of life.
“Increased awareness by health-conscious parents of the health benefits for children of the omega-3 (fats) EPA and DHA has triggered a launch of products,” says Joanna Lane, marketing production manager for Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd. (www.ocean-nutrition.com), Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “Studies show EPA and DHA support normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves, while reducing symptoms of asthma, depression, mood disorders, type I diabetes (symptoms) and obesity-related disorders.”

 

Omega-3s increasingly are recognized as a key ingredient for children’s products. Ocean Nutrition’s Meg-3 omega ingredient has founds its way into Dannon’s Danino yogurt, Kemps milk and Wonder Bread.

As a result, foods have been developed for school-aged children in the last couple of years that include Ocean Nutrition’s Meg-3 omega-3 EPA/DHA ingredient. Those products include Danino yogurt, Wonder + Headstart bread, Arnold’s Grains & More Double Omega Bread, the Popumz group of single-serve snacks in the Dr. Sears Lunch Box Essentials line and Kemps Plus Healthy Kids milk.

Kemps was the first company to launch a fresh milk product in North America containing the omega-3s. The 2% milk was “made especially for children’s nutritional needs,” says Lane.

By targeting the brain health benefits of omega-3s, Danone “saw instant success with these products,” according to Lane. She says the product snagged 15 percent market share in the first year, and sales continued to outgrow other products in the kid’s yogurt category during the second year, growing by 24 percent versus 9 percent for the category. Market share increased to 17 percent of the kids’ yogurt category.

“The average North American adult consumes only 100mg of EPA/DHA per day, while the suggested daily intake is 500mg/day. The average child consumes only 18mg of EPA/DHA per day,” says Lane. “The ability to add omega-3 from fish oil to food products without affecting color, odor or taste allows parents to improve their children’s diet in an easy and convenient way.”

New kid foods on the block

In some respects, the hardest part about formulating foods for children is the parents. Parents make the majority of food purchases for their children, and in the current climate of nutrition (mis)information and overload, some important facts get lost.

“You need to effectively communicate healthy benefits of your formulation [to parents],” says Deb Flindall, food scientist and R&D expert for Weetabix North America (www.weetabixna.com), Cobourg, Ontario. “The heath benefits of lower sugars, more fiber and whole grains are widely recognized; unfortunately FDA-approved health claims are more directed to an aging population rather than edifying the benefits to growing children.

“Carbohydrates had a bad rap for a few years, (but) it’s generally recognized that limiting carbs is not a good idea for growing children.” According to Flindall, carbohydrates should be the “resulting formulation balance between sugars, starch sources and fiber, which are much more critical to consider individually for the active, growing child.”

“Traditional, insoluble fibers, such as brans, can be difficult to incorporate into products palatable to children,” Flindall explains. “Their coarse nature tends to negatively affect mouthfeel and texture. Soluble, prebiotic fiber is a formulator’s dream come true when developing products for children. It incorporates into pastas, cereals, drinks and sauces almost seamlessly to levels offering incredible health benefits.

“Soluble prebiotic fibers such as inulin and oligofructose from chicory root, agave and artichoke have been shown to enhance calcium absorption, reinforce immunity and promote healthy digestion,” adds Flindall. “It acts to regulate digestion in comparison to traditional fiber sources which move the food more quickly through the system, often robbing the body of the chance to absorb the nutrients effectively.”

Despite being beaten up a few years ago, “Today's cereals are some of the most nutritious breakfast options for kids,” says Heidi Geller, a communications manager for General Mills Inc. (www.generalmills.com), Minneapolis. “Cereal is nutrient-dense, with most delivering at least 10 key nutrients within 100 to 130 calories per serving. For example, all General Mills cereals have at least 8g of whole grain per serving, and the entire line of Big G kid cereals are a good source of vitamin D and calcium, which contribute to bone health.”

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that goes double for the kids we send off for a full day of learning and troublemaking. That’s why other breakfast foods are improving their formulations with the grade-schoolers in mind too.

Van’s International Foods Inc. (www.vansfoods.com), Longmont, Colo., now a part of Healthy Food Holdings, Inc., is fortifying its Mini Waffles with both calcium and whey protein concentrate (WPC). “One serving of Mini Waffles provide 20 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium, qualifying Van’s Mini Waffles as an excellent source of calcium,” says Jay Orris, director of marketing for the company.

“We use whey protein concentrate, a natural ingredient, to replace some of the oil in our Mini Waffle line,” he continues. “That allows us to maintain fat and calories at a lower level on all our Mini products, including our more indulgent items, like our delicious Mini Chocolate Chip waffles.”

Sensitive to the greater prevalence of food allergies among children, Van's extended its wheat-free line to the mini-waffle product. Also, the wheat-free line of products is gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free and nut-free.

The shift in how we make foods and beverages for kids is a positive trend for not only the children but the manufacturers as well. That parents are taking a much more proactive interest in what they feed junior means they also are more informed and attuned to quality processed foods and willing to put health and flavor ahead of all considerations. The formulators who don’t listen to these insistent parents will soon find themselves in permanent time-out.


Note to Marketing

While marketing plays a big part in the success of a children’s product, shoppers scrutinize the nutritional messages more closely than they do for adult products. So marketers must understand the nutritional underpinnings of good kids’ formulation … because parents increasingly do.

    1. “From a nutritional perspective the starting place for determining a fortification approach for products targeting children falls into three categories: micronutrients, macronutrients and nutraceuticals,” says Lori Stern, scientific leader for nutrition science at DSM Nutritional Products Inc. (www.dsm.com), Parsippany, N.J.

      • Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals): There are two priorities when considering adding micronutrients for intake by children — establishing a relevant contribution to meeting adequate intake of required nutrients and providing safe amounts of these nutrients in the context of the whole diet. To determine where kids are falling short, companies can look at NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data.


    • Macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber): In the face of the obesity epidemic, avoiding excess calories — especially from saturated fat and added sugar — and increasing fiber intake should be part of any child nutrition strategy.
• Nutraceuticals: Understanding how new, emerging ingredients for which there is no established requirement -- e.g., polyunsaturated fatty acids or probiotics -- can further promote the health of children, such as with immune health, mental development, etc. This will require sound and sustained scientific support to ensure that efficacy and safety (of such ingredients) are established specific to children.
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