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.