How to Formulate Healthier Snacks for Kids

Building healthier snacks for perpetually hungry kids moves front and center.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Although First Lady Michelle Obama praised members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association for reducing calories and salt in food, she challenged food manufacturers to work faster to reformulate food so it is healthier for kids.

"I'm here today to urge all of you to move faster and to go farther because the truth is we don't have a moment to waste," she told the food and beverage processors at their March meeting, "because a baby born today could be less than a decade away from showing the first signs of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, if he or she is obese as a child."

As her husband’s health care reform law faces challenges, the first lady has made childhood obesity her main cause. The statistics are alarming. Obesity has more than doubled for preschool children (2-5 years) and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6-11 over the past three decades, according to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. Indeed, some nine million children over 6 years of age are obese, and 15 percent are at risk of becoming overweight.

Snacking may be the root cause. A recent study based on four national surveys of 31,000 children and adolescents ages 2-18, conducted by Barry Popkin, director of nutrition epidemiology, and researcher Carmen Piernas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found U.S. children snack almost three times a day, compared with one snack per day 30 years ago. Non-meal noshing accounts for more than 27 percent of their daily caloric intake, reports the journal Health Affairs, which previewed the study. Preschool snackers consume the highest number of snacks per day. In addition to three meals, they're eating and drinking an extra 182 calories a day in snacks.

Half of American children snack about four times a day, one in five snack six times a day, and some children appear to be eating almost constantly, consuming either snacks or meals as often as 10 times a day, says Popkin.

"The average child today is getting 586 calories a day from snacks," Popkin told NPR during an interview. "This represents an almost 200 calories a day increase compared with snack calories consumed by children a generation ago."

Giving children the best nutritional start in life is front and center for the food industry. Key initiatives have been to remove excess fat and needless calories while adding healthy nutrients – antioxidants, omega-3s and DHA for brain health, calcium, vitamin D and magnesium for bones, plus probiotics, prebiotics and fiber.
Oils are one of the basic ingredients to consider when formulating healthier snacks.

"The oil options available for food formulators to meet healthy snack product development goals resemble a palette of possibilities: soybean oil rich in polyunsaturates, oleic acid oils rich in monounsaturates and fully hydrogenated soybean oils rich in stearic acid, to name a few," says Roger Daniels, director of R&D at Bunge North America (www.bungeoils.com), Bradley, Ill. “Matching up vegetable oils with specialized edible oil processes allows for achieving a balance between nutrition and functionality.”

Oils and shortenings provide heat transfer in fried snacks, structure for baked snacks, such as cookies and snack cakes, and flavor carrying in spray oil applications employed in cracker manufacturing, explains Daniels.

For bakery solutions, RighT technology provides end-users with soybean oil-based ingredients including reduced trans fat bakery shortenings without high saturates. NH technology uses non-hydrogenated palm oil to reduce trans fats and allows for the removal of hydrogenation from ingredient statements. Completing the trio of technologies, “Bunge Oils Ultra technology employs a unique enzymatic interesterification process to provide end-users with soybean oil-based plastic shortenings with reduced trans fats without partial hydrogenation for bakery solutions,” says Daniels.

"For years, conventional wisdom ruled that when it came to snacks, it was impossible to offer a healthier option," says David Dzisiak, healthy oils commercial leader at Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences (www.dowagro.com). "That's no longer true. Omega-9 shortening offers a product with significantly reduced saturated fat and [no] trans fat. And, omega-9 shortening is naturally stable, providing an equal or longer shelf life when compared to current shortenings," he adds.

"Moms want to give their children the healthiest snacks and, increasingly, they are label-shopping," points out Dzisiak. "When Mom looks at a label of a snack made with omega-9 shortening, she sees that it has zero trans fat, significantly reduced saturated fat and is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated (omega-9) fat. We can replace a significant amount of the bad fats that many snacks foods previously contained."

Gums are a great aid in the development of kids’ snacks. "Lower-fat items require the texture or mouthfeel of a higher fat product," says Joshua Brooks, vice president of sales for Gum Technology Corp. (www.gumtech.com), Tucson, Ariz. "Product development and research scientists desire a fat replacement product that will be easy to incorporate into final formulation and processing."

Gum Technology offers a stabilizer blend that provides the solution to the problem of replacing fat without losing flavor or texture. "Coyote Brand CKX-Fat Replacer is a blend of cellulose gel, konjac and xanthan gum. We combine these three individual hydrocolloids to get the most out of their individual properties resulting in a synergistic, highly functional reaction," says Brooks.

It can be dispersed in cold or hot applications," says Brooks. "The cellulose gel in the blend has the unique property of thickening into a fatty-like texture when shear is applied. The konjac and xanthan also react synergistically with each other to provide an elastic gel set. All three hydrocolloids combined gel into a creamy texture mimicking fat."

Keeping products moist is another consideration. "Besides its fat replacement functionality, Coyote Brand CKX–Fat Replacer also provides a high level of moisture binding capacity, which extends shelf life by reducing staling and syneresis," says Brooks. "In frozen snacks it can be used to bind up moisture to retard the growth of ice crystals and reduce their size, further extending shelf life in these applications as well," he adds.

"Most gums are excellent sources of soluble dietary fiber and have little or no fat and sugar," adds Grace Wang, food scientist at TIC Gums (www.ticgums.com), White Marsh, Md. "Adding products like gum arabic, inulin, and low-viscosity guar to traditional snack products can boost the fiber content without changing the basis of the product. Gums can also be used as fat mimetics, so they can improve the texture and mouthfeel of reduced-fat products,” she explains.

"Some gums, such as gum arabic, are really good binding agents," she continues. "So, instead of using corn syrup in a granola bar formula to bind all the bits together, a concentrated TIC Pretested Gum Arabic FT solution can be used. On the other hand, a low concentration of gum arabic solution can be combined with spices and sprayed onto a baked good, allowing the spices to adhere. Products such as Caragum 200 or Ticaloid 102B-No Fat can help improve the mouthfeel of lower fat products."

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