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Food Manufacturers Slipping Health into Children's Foods

Food formulators use stealth options for hiding nutrients and healthy ingredients in children's snacks, meals and beverages. New ingredients, methods and technologies are making this task even easier.

By Jeanne Turner, Contributing Editor

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.

General Mills resolved in 2005 to reformulate its products to reduce sugar and fats and to increase whole grain content. Its goal is to reduce the sugar in all of its cereals advertised to children aged 12 or below to a single-digit gram of sugar per serving in 2009. In its fiscal 2012, the company can boast that all General Mills kids' cereals contain 10g of sugar or less per serving.

The company plans to reduce sodium as well, aiming for an average 20 percent reduction by 2015 in its top 10 categories, representing approximately 40 percent of the company's U.S. retail portfolio.

General Mills used a gradual approach to reducing sugar to allow consumers to adjust to the changes. Moving some sugar from the cereal's interior to the outside of the product changes how the sugar is perceived by the taste buds, according to Susan Crockett, head of the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition. Functionally, sugar also contributes to solids within formulation and crispiness, to help the cereal float longer in milk. As part of the solution, the company added whole grains to replace some of the bulk lost when sugar is removed. A white checkmark on General Mills' cereal boxes designates those that contain more whole grain than any other single ingredient.

On the main entrée side, many firms are using a whole-grain breading on kid products such as fish sticks and chicken nuggets. Toronto-based Life Choices Natural Foods makes whole fillet Alaskan White Fish Pollock with a multigrain coating consisting of flax (for omega-3), whole grains and oats. Flavorful seasonings accompany some products. Trident Seafoods, Seattle, developed whole-grain Baja Fish Sticks with TexMex seasoning and wild caught pollock in a whole-grain coating designed for foodservice and school cafeterias.

Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, Iowa, offers corn-based ingredients to help create kid-friendly products, such as snack crackers, tortillas and corn dog bites with increased fiber levels. "We typically use a combination of whole-grain flour and our TruBran corn bran to achieve a goal of around 3g of fiber per serving and, when we can, an excellent source of fiber at 5g," says Kelly Belknap, applications scientist. Bland in flavor and color, the ingredient easily incorporates into baked goods, snacks and cereals.

In breakfast foods Belknap says the company receives requests to increase fiber in dry mix, frozen or refrigerated pancakes and waffles, to raise them to a "good" level of fiber. "I see whole grains and added fiber continuing on an upward trend as more Americans recognize the importance of fiber in the diet," she says. "A majority of the American population is fiber deficient. It is all about establishing good eating habits early on."

With the heavy emphasis on healthier eating in the school cafeteria, one surprising challenge for meal planners is to keep enough calories on the plate to meet minimum requirements. According to Kirby Saito, spokesperson for J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, Idaho, the company is experimenting with a new side dish under a line called Upsides, featuring high fiber and whole grain content from the combination of vegetables and exotic grains. However Saito says schools seek out the company's sweet potato fries, IQF vegetable blends and other traditional potato side dishes as popular inclusions to help supply calories required in a school meal.

A salty matter

In February, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report stressing the importance of reducing sodium in the diet. Sodium poses an even trickier conundrum than sugar, as it plays an important role in microbial management.

When General Mills attempted to reduce the sodium in its low-fat crescent rolls, according to a Wall Street Journal article, the product turned moldy. Sodium also assists with modifying proteins, sensory testing, shelf life and product quality.

Breads and rolls topped the list of foods that contribute to higher levels of sodium in the diet, but certain ingredients can help reduce sodium levels while maintaining product quality and safety standards.

Reduced levels of salt can result in a less-developed bread in terms of crumb texture and decreased volume. Purac , Lake Zurich, Ill., conducted internal baking trials that demonstrated PuraQ Arome NA4's ability to reduce sodium up to 30-35 percent without loss of taste while maintaining yield or volume.

Cargill launched Sodium Sense this year at IFT, highlighted in chicken quesadillas that contained 25 percent less sodium than traditional chicken quesadillas, in addition to whole grain benefits. Sodium is one of the most inexpensive ingredients in a food system, and replacing it can challenge cost-effective production. SodiumSense poses a cost-effective turnkey solution for reducing up to 50 percent of the sodium in products such as sauces, cheese, processed meat, snacks, soups and baked goods.

Yeast-raised breads and rolls pose a particular challenge for sodium reduction because of sodium's function and flavor enhancement in these breads, particularly in light of the industry's efforts to bulk up whole grains. Sodium helps counteract the sometimes bitter taste of whole wheat while it also activates the yeast particles in the early stages of baking and strengthens gluten activity.

Little critters

Active kids need active ingredients for healthy digestive and immune systems. "Live and active" probiotic cultures are as popular in children's foods as in adult products.

Surviving the heat and other rigors of processing is an impediment to probiotics finding more applications. Ganeden Biotech's BC30 is a bacillus coagulans strain that forms a protective shell that enables it to withstand high temperatures as well as the journey through the gut to the intestines.

"This organism has the ability to remain viable through processes that have been up until now impossible to consider," says Mike Bush, vice president of business development for the Cleveland company.

In one example, in hot tea made with boiling water and steeped for four minutes, Ganeden BC30 demonstrated a 65 percent survival rate, similar to that for baked muffins. It had an 80 percent survival rate in a hot mixed granola bar.

"Probiotics help improve digestive and immune health. The earlier you start in the routine of taking them, the better the general overall health can improve," says Bush.

Another ingredient innovation on the small side is a microalgae-based flour from Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals, South San Francisco, Calif. Almagine HL Whole Algalin Flour is all-natural and lipid-rich and contains dietary fiber, protein, antioxidants and micronutrients. According to Philippe Caillat, senior director of marketing, it can be used in place of eggs or milk. The lipid content is mostly monounsaturated and it contributes emulsifying properties.

The company demonstrated the product's versatility in the Healthy Kids section at the National Restaurant Assn.'s May show in Chicago, working it into a hot dog bun, mustard sauce and cookie, among other items. The cookie contained just 115 calories, the honey mustard sauce reduced calories by 72 percent and the hot dog made with Almagine contained 70 percent less fat than a traditional hot dog.

Hot dog buns containing microalgae—a far cry from a hidden compartment in a sippy cup, but the overall goal is the same: healthy solutions to help build healthier children.