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.
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.”