The other day on pinterest.com was an ingenious sippy-cup design that contained a hidden compartment near the lid to put liquid medication. It mixes in unobtrusively with a child's beverage to help parents avoid one potential battleground with their children in the quest to stay healthy.
For years now, food formulators have employed stealth options for hiding nutrients or better-for-you ingredients in children's snacks, meals and beverages. New ingredients, methods and technologies have made this task easier, and this leads to healthier food options at retail and in the school lunch line.
In 2010 school cafeterias served more than 5 billion lunches to students, comprising a significant portion of some students' caloric and nutritional intake. This past summer, new USDA guidelines required school meals to include more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and to cut sodium and calories. In addition, entrees must not exceed limits on saturated and trans fats.
These guidelines are important because childhood obesity rates grow each year, notes Kristen Dammann, regulatory senior scientist for Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn. "Parents are looking for healthier options to help stem this tide of unhealthy eating patterns," she adds.
Recent figures support Dammann's statement. Data released July 16 by the Centers for Disease Control reveals approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese. Obesity prevalence among this population has almost tripled since 1980, and adults are not immune to this trend either.
As a result, more parents are looking for food and beverages choices for their children that contain better nutrition — 64 percent in fact, according to a Health Focus study from 2010. Taste is a close second however, as 62 percent of parents agreed with the priority "I know my children will eat it." Change costs money, but formulators need to keep in mind that 61 percent of this same group also listed price as a major concern.
Despite price concerns, some smaller companies that utilize organic or natural ingredients are flourishing. One such firm is Sprout Foods, Duluth, Ga., a marketer of organic baby and toddler foods, founded 10 years ago by Food Network veteran chef Tyler Florence.
Florence believes you begin cultivating a baby's palate "with the first spoonful of food you put in their mouth." Sprout meals feature roasted vegetables because "natural starches taste sweeter. The food in our meals is the same I would put on a $32 plate at a restaurant," he says.
Florence says small children have the ability to learn to love natural, flavor-based vegetables. If started at an early age, they will reject traditional kids' fare. If raised on natural and organic foods, kids will view traditional fare, such as pizza and chicken nuggets, as "cartoon food."
Sourcing organic ingredients can be a challenge, says Florence. However supply is growing as demand for organic foods grows. Sprout boasts it is the only organic baby food in a pouch that offers parents recipes that contain vegetables alone or vegetables with grains, without added fruit. "We avoid this fruit-dominant approach via our cooking process to offer parents a wide variety of balanced options to feed their children," the chef says.
In terms of price, organic is still more expensive. But at Sprout, "We believe it is important for consumers to understand the full benefits and total value provided by organic food: free from pesticides and chemicals, benefits to the soil and environment and long-term benefits to our food supply," Florence concludes.
Most moms will say there is no more important decision they make than feeding their babies. For those moms, that doesn't have a price."
Buddy Fruits, Coral Gables, Fla., launched in 2008 selling pouched fruit for babies and toddlers with Walmart as its largest distribution outlet. Recently the firm introduced a coconut milk dairy alternative, "Cocomilk and Fruit," containing less than 90 calories per serving of a dairy-free, gluten-free smoothie-style snack. At 4.2 oz., the larger packaging can satisfy a hungry child or appeal to an adult audience.
"Gluten sensitivity appears to be on the rise and appears to be connected to ADD or ADHD and other behavioral symptoms. I believe more parents will be looking for gluten-free alternatives in the months and years to come," predicts Fabian Milon, cofounder of Buddy Fruits.
He also believes the country is continuing to move away from high-fructose corn syrup. Buddy Fruits is launching a gelatin-type product in a pouch that contains 100 percent fruit, substituting fruit pectin for texture and sweetening instead of high-fructose corn syrup. The product uses no animal ingredients, unlike traditional gelatins, to give it vegetarian appeal.
The company flash-pasteurizes its product to maintain safety standards. Although it carries a12-month shelf life, the company recommends consumers refrigerate the product at home to help preserve its nutritional qualities.
Starting the day
Parents of school-aged children know breakfast is an important start to the day but often, when crunched for time, an easy solution is a quick bowl of cereal. Critics claim many children's cereals contain more sugar than the much-maligned Twinkie, and in some cases they are correct.
Researchers at Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative noted that the nutritional content of child-directed cereals has improved by an average of 10 percent since the group last examined the category in 2009. However, the same group said cereals marketed directly to children still contain 57 percent more sugar, 52 percent less fiber and 50 percent more sodium than adult-targeted cereals.