Is it Possible to Make Healthier Foods Kids Will Eat?

Oct. 10, 2013
It can be done. Ingredient substitutions exist that can remove fat and calories and insert fiber and whole grains – tastefully.

Those chubby cheeks on a baby or toddler are adorable, but they shouldn't last too long.


Childhood obesity has been growing by leaps and bounds, make that pounds, in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

A happy, bouncing baby is one thing, but the percentage of children aged 6-11 who are overweight has grown from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. And our teens are even worse. The obese portion of this age group expanded from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same time.

It's not just the case of a little "baby fat." The CDC studies show that children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults. They are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.

Helping children to a healthier and happier future is a goal of many people in high places. Starting at the White House.

"The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake," said First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2010 launch of the "Let's Move" initiative. "It is dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams."

Lifestyle changes are one of the biggest culprits in the widening of our young.

It seems that "back-in-the-day" kids were healthier because more walked to school, ran around at recess and were outside playing before the family sat down for a meal. And at that table, a parent watched the portion size of the home-cooked meal and made sure the vegetables on the plate were eaten.

"Today, children experience a very different lifestyle. Walks to and from school have been replaced by car and bus rides. Gym class and after-school sports have been cut; afternoons are now spent with TV, video games, and the internet. Parents are busier than ever and families eat fewer home-cooked meals," Let's Move says.

Processed foods often take a hit when the diets of the young are addressed. But, in fact, food producers have been a leading soldier in this battle against a flabby future.

"The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake," said First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2010 launch of the "Let's Move" initiative.

"Many of our customers have proactively made commitments to address nutrition and health in their products in general, and, more specifically, in those heavily consumed by kids," says Laura Daly, childhood nutrition marketing manager at Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn.

"In some cases food makers are reformulating existing products, in others they are introducing new products designed for kid appeal with the nutritional features that parents are looking for. Many of our largest customers have an array of products that already meet standards such as the USDA program for school meals and foods available under the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), as well as the Children's Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative.

"At Cargill, we are helping food and beverage manufacturers with all of the above - finding formulation solutions with less trans and saturated fat, sugar and sodium, and more whole grains and other beneficial nutrients like fiber and protein – and at the same time meeting the taste expectations of kids and the nutritional features parents are seeking," Daly continues. "Our customers, in turn, can offer a wider variety of choices and healthier options for children."

"Food makers are addressing childhood obesity in several ways, which can range from reducing sugar and fats to portion control," says Jennifer Stephens, marketing manager at Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo. "For the past decade, soda pop has been the scapegoat for the rise in childhood obesity. Beverage makers have expanded their portfolios to include healthier beverage types such as fruit-based juices made with real fruit and no added sugar and flavored waters."

Ever consider potatoes as a beverage ingredient? Penford offers a non-GMO potato-based soluble fiber, PenFibeRO, that can replace sugar to reduce the caloric content and provide fiber to beverage products.

Snacking: Good or bad?

According to the CDC, snacking between meals is now commonplace. Snacks are now up to three in a day and adding 200 calories, and one in five school-age children eat six snacks a day.

In total, we are now eating 31 percent more calories than we were 40 years ago – including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. The average American now eats 15 more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

Snacks are not always a villain if consumed – and manufactured – with healthfulness in mind.

"The snack category has sprouted new product development," Stephens continues. "Snacks offer portion control, portability and serve as the perfect vehicle to sneak in healthy components such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole-grain flours. And because snacks come in a plethora of forms – bars, nut and fruit mixes, puffed bites, extruded pieces, baked, etc. -- boredom rarely is a word used to describe this fast growing category." Another Penford non-GMO potato-based ingredient, PenFibeRS resistant starch, can replace flour or sugar in low moisture snacks to reduce calories and increase fiber content.

It seems that families are always in the car toting an offspring to some event. It would seem youth are more active than ever. But, 8-18-year-old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity, according to Let's Move.

This is a hectic and challenging time for the family.

"For time-crunched parents, the need for convenience is just as important as ever, but I think what is changing is that parents are focused on the nutrient content of the foods they are providing," Cargill's Daly says. "Our proprietary research shows that about two-thirds of parents are looking for nutrition highlights on the front of the package and that they are more likely than the general population to look for nutrition claims."

Simple messages such as reduced sugar, sugar-free and made with real fruit or whole grain, when stamped on front of packages, can help with the purchasing decision process.

At Cargill, "We are in the unique position to take a truly holistic approach -- we have ingredients and expertise to reduce sodium, fat and sugar and at the same time we can increase positive nutrients, such as whole grains and fiber. Through our applications know-how and sensory testing capabilities, we can ensure that the resulting formulations will appeal to kids," she concludes.

If the hustle and bustle isn't enough, the youth and teen demographic is notorious for being the most finicky of customers. This consumer group isn't interested in their health. They want it to taste good, and they want it now.

"Foods that are portable, shelf-stable and health-orientated are created for parents and children on-the-go," Penford's Stephens adds.

However, this is no time to rail against the society we live in and harken back to the days of yore. Food companies realize this and are greeting today's challenges.

"We understand that it's a delicate balancing act to get the taste right but also make the food nutritious and affordable, and we stand ready to help our customers work through this challenge," Daly says. "We recommend starting with research, applying the findings from Cargill's proprietary Gatekeeper Purchase Drivers Study on what nutrition attributes are most important to parents in a given category. While parents own the decision to bring the food into the house the first time, it won't be bought again if kids don't eat it. That's why we encourage our customers to leverage Cargill's sensory testing with children. This is a great reality check that can be done along the way to make sure the taste and texture of the product is acceptable to the ultimate decision makers, kids."

Portion sizes have exploded – they're two to five times bigger, and beverages have grown from a modest 13.6 oz. in the 1970s to 20 oz. of often sugar-sweetened drinks at a slurping of today, according to Let's Move.

Surrounded by bad news on all sides? It's not time to panic.

"In general, options that include nutrition benefits in products that kids will actually eat will resonate with gatekeepers," Daly says. She sees these trends for the food industry becoming a solution. The industry is "finding innovative ways to include fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and fiber into foods in a way that pleases kids," she exhorts.

"Include items naturally rich in nutrients. Focus foods and beverages with broad family appeal versus just kid-centric."

The tools and technology are available. Every parent must have the will to use them … whether the kids like it or not.

The article appeared as the cover story for Food Processing's Wellness Foods supplement in October 2013

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