This article is based on material appearing in KidsFoodTrends, a cooperative newsletter between Prepared Foods and Consumer Knowledge Centre. For more information on subscribing, visit

In the midst of an onslaught of articles and studies bemoaning the poor physical condition of America's young people, consumer attention has turned to food manufacturers in efforts both to place blame and seek solutions. Manufacturers have responded in a variety of ways, perhaps none more disparately than in their means of advertising to those young consumers.

Prepared Foods' KidsFoodTrends (KFT) bi-monthly newsletter reports that the food industry spent an estimated $10 billion in direct marketing aimed toward children in 2004. Those dollars influence family purchases in the grocery store. However, manufacturers achieve another goal: establishing a marketing relationship with consumers at a young age. As Mary Story and Simone French of the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota noted, “Marketers believe that brand preference begins before purchase behavior does. Brand preference in children appears to be related to two major factors: 1) children's positive experiences with a brand, and 2) parents liking that brand. Thus, marketers are intensifying their efforts to develop brand relationships with young consumers, beginning when they are toddlers.”

As J. McNeal noted in The Kids Market: Myth and Realities, those young people may not be able to purchase for themselves very often, but they do have what has come to be known as “pester power.” McNeal found that the first in-store request happened at about 24 months of age, in a supermarket in 75% of those instances.

The Story and French article, appearing in “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the U.S.” in the February 2004 edition of The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, reported that U.S. children view 20,000 to 40,000 commercials each year. Furthermore, those young people may view as many as three hours of food commercials every week.

No matter the reason or ultimate reward, marketing campaigns skewed too young raise ethical concerns, and childhood obesity rates have prompted a reduction in advertising to children. Marketing to young people is the reason for the very existence of the Children's Advertisement Review Unit (CARU). This group coordinates voluntary industry self-regulation to ensure that advertisements directed to children are truthful, accurate and appropriate for the intended audience.

Some consumers, however, regard self-regulation more as self-protection, and hope the federal government takes responsibility for controlling child-oriented advertising. CARU can make recommendations but not enforce sanctions.

In an era where children's notions of nutrition are more debated than ever, can marketing efforts have a positive influence upon young people? Have recent efforts to convey “more responsible” eating habits paid off?

“There are a few success stories, though they are not 100% success stories: the 'Got Milk' campaign has proven to get some kid segments drinking more milk, though young teenage girls are not showing the needed increase,” notes Bryan Urbick, CEO and president of Consumer Knowledge Centre, and editor of KFT. “The Five-A-Day campaign has increased awareness greatly and consumption a bit, but certainly not up to the five-a-day it is intended. In-school nutrition programs, reinforced with consistent lunch programs and snack 'rules,' have begun to have an effect in awareness, but it takes some time for awareness to trickle down to behavior. Long-term eating habits are the real measure of success, and it is too early to determine.”

Ads Add

When it comes to advertising aimed at young people, many parents worry that children's minds are vulnerable, unable to differentiate between television programs and commercials. Add in the ads children face on the Internet and at school, and these parents often are left to believe the only hope is for significant restrictions on child-targeted advertising.

Those concerns may have merit. According to a University of Illinois study, nearly 44% of ads targeted to children were for confections, candy or fast food. Furthermore, children who watched more television were more confused about what they should eat. Story and French contend that children under the age of eight tend to view advertising as fun, entertaining and unbiased information. “The heavy marketing of high-fat, high-sugar foods to this age group can be viewed as exploitative, because young children do not understand that commercials are designed to sell products and they do not yet possess the cognitive ability to comprehend or evaluate the advertising.”

Further complicating matters is the lack of an objective system to define which foods are healthful and what makes them so. The argument is made frequently that parents are responsible for educating their children about portion sizes and the definition of a healthful, balanced diet. Rather than banning ads aimed at children, companies are implementing their own approaches to marketing to America's youth.

CARU, meanwhile, expects to add experts in nutrition, child mental health, marketing and communications to its team. In addition, many companies are attempting to preserve the self-regulation initiative by:

* Advertising products that meet Sensible Solution Nutrition standards (a new program that will help consumers to choose healthier products),

* Using their characters to promote healthy food and provide more education about healthy eating and regular exercise,

* Banning advertisement within schools,

* Providing transparency on the nutritional standards met by food products through clearer labeling and other means and

* Not targeting children younger than 12.

Kraft, for instance, took the latter route, announcing in early 2005 it would curb advertising of its snack food items to children under 12 and phase out ads for less-nutritious products in media aimed at audiences of six- to 11-year-olds. Kraft does not intentionally market to children under the age of six.

What to Eat

Research suggests children's mental and physical performance is linked to the food they consume. For instance, a young person (older folks, too, for that matter) would tend to opt for a candy bar as opposed to, say, a portion of lentils. However, if they wanted to perform better, a recent issue of KFT says they should pick the lentils.

Complex-carbohydrate food types--pasta, potatoes and pulses, for instance--likely will increase performance, while simple carbs found in candy and sugar are more apt to cause the consumer to lose concentration and build up fat, lowering both physical and mental performance.

Simple carbohydrates require very little time to break down the glucose, thereby providing a sudden energy boost, “leading to hyperactive behavior and reduced ability to concentrate, resulting in reduced mental performance and lower academic results for kids. Simple carbohydrates have also been shown to increase the level of hyperactivity and attention deficit, lowering children's ability to concentrate and perform well,” says the December issue of KFT.

Meanwhile, complex carbohydrates found in grains, vegetables and legumes provide a more constant, steady source of glucose at a lower level of intensity. Not only does this help increase the length of physical and mental performance, it also makes the stomach feel fuller for longer.

While the unused energy from both types of carbohydrates will turn to fat if not used by the body, the complex carbohydrates have an advantage here as well. Their slower release of energy means children are more likely to use them completely in the course of normal daily physical activities.

Alpha of the Omegas

A standout performer in 2005, omega fatty acids have proven essential to young people. Scientists have found the levels of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids consumed in childhood do affect early brain development and mental intelligence throughout life. Studying current food trends, KFT found 95% to 99% of the U.S. population suffers from omega-3 deficiency.

The average American, according to KFT, consumes substantially more linoleic acid (LA) than alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), the two main types of fatty acids shown to have real benefits for mental performance. However, the consumption imbalance is believed to be related to hyperactivity, depression, brain allergies and schizophrenia. Beyond even the improved learning and IQ benefits, LNA nutrients also are suspected of improving calmness and stress, but they also appear to help avoid disease--through higher energy levels, stamina and recovery, better insulin sensitivity and lower risk of cancer and cardiovascular problems.

Research indicates that children who consume nutritionally balanced diets--high in complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, protein and containing the proper balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids--will have much higher levels of mental and physical performance, not to mention a healthier body and fewer behavioral problems.

However, no matter the need, can children be forced to make wiser eating choices? “The best way to help kids like more healthful foods is to expose them at a very young age (some believe even before birth),” Urbick believes. “If 'force' is used, it is likely to have a detrimental effect (make the child hate it more). The trick is to make healthful foods available to kids and allow them to experience them in a positive way. Successful regimens provide variety and, unfortunately, a lot gets thrown away. Making the food seem desirable (cooking properly, using combinations with liked foods, etc.) will improve the likelihood that kids will ask for it. Children are innately neophobic (afraid of new foods), and they are particularly skeptical of foods they are told are 'good for them.'”

Texture Test

As any parent knows, however, getting a child to eat is more a matter of taste than anything (for that matter, taste is key even for adult consumers), but texture is a major influence on kids' enjoyment of a particular food or drink. Furthermore, the child's stage of physical development is a major factor in texture preferences.

KFT explains a child's sensory development begins as early as the seventh week of pregnancy and, while chewing typically begins at the age of six months, it is “widely believed that the skill of chewing is not well developed until the age of three years.”

For younger children, the preference is for foods easier to chew and swallow--foods that are relatively smooth, fine and soft. Most children dislike particulates in foods, i.e., seeds in berries, pulp in orange juice, chunks in chunky peanut butter, etc. They appreciate texture variation, but children do not usually develop an appreciation for more complex textures until around the age of 10 to 12.

Even then, the role of texture in enjoying food depends in large part upon experience. Increased numbers of experiences with a certain food tend to increase acceptance. A recent issue of KFT noted a study of 12-month-old infants. In the natural home setting over two days, 73 infants were exposed to cooked carrots in two different texture formats--chopped and pureed. The mother of each then rated the infant's enjoyment of each texture on a nine-point hedonic scale. The infants were found to consume significantly more pureed carrots and to enjoy them more. The result, KFT surmised, was unsurprising, because initial solids foods introduced to infants often are pureed and very smooth.

Recent years have seen more investigation of the relationship between texture and flavor release, and KFT recommends manufacturers experiment with these possibilities in foods for children.

What Do Children Want?

Evaluating the findings of several projects, KFT editors managed to offer an idea of what motivates children when it comes to food, nutrition and healthier eating:

* Great eating experience: The importance of taste cannot be overestimated, as it is the eating experience that prompts them to seek that food item again. Clever positioning and promotion can prompt trial, but taste is the deciding factor when it comes to repeat consumption.

* Balance: With nutrition basics a difficult concept for adults, it is easy to understand how children can be confused by the notions. Regarding a food as “good” or “bad” may confuse them even more, so KFT recommends a focus on portion size: “An approach that says there are no bad foods, only bad proportions, may be a better way.”

* Consistency: Also confusing to children and adults are the mixed messages from so-called experts. Manufacturers should realize this and avoid transitory food and diet crazes.

* Respect the consumer: Children want to be respected; structure boundaries for them, while still offering a variety of choices.

*Link lessons to real food: The multiple food pyramids also risk confusion; they seem simple, yet they also seem far removed from actual food choices. Link what is taught to children with real-world options. “Food companies should look for ways to build connections between theory and practice, particularly on prepared foods and ready-to-eat products,” advises KFT.

Above all, when it comes to getting the message to children, develop a rational, long-term view. The obesity problem did not appear overnight, nor will it disappear that quickly. Measurable milestones may be key, but it is clear that the playing field has changed. Manufacturers may well be held accountable in far more than just the traditional sense of brand awareness.

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Sidebar: It's Good to Have Friends

Anju Holay, Contributing Editor

International Quality and Productivity Center's (IQPC) Kid Power Food & Beverage Conference, in Safety Harbor, Fla. (held February 6-9, 2006), offered many insights into the world of kid-targeted marketing strategies. The conference included presenters from Pepperidge Farm, Campbell Soup Company, Wild Oats, IFF, Burger King, Tyson Foods, Zoup-ah! and many others.

Pepperidge Farm illustrated the successful use of a proprietary brand character for their Goldfish line. Born in January 2005, “Finn” has helped Pepperidge Farm sustain strong growth for the Goldfish brand. As part of the brand's relaunch, Finn's new friends were introduced, each with distinct characterizations. First, Brooke was a Parmesan-flavored character who is intelligent, sensitive, sassy—and often serves as the voice of reason. Next came Gilbert, a Pretzel character who could be perceived as shy, nervous and thoughtful, followed finally by “X-treme,” an Xtra Cheddar character who is the daredevil—mischievous and athletic. Eric Epstein, associate marketing manager, shared, “There are simple human truths to which your core target can relate…our characters serve to deepen the relationship through our brand story.” An amusing execution of this is shown in an advertising spot, “Slumber Party,” where the Goldfish characters are having a slumber party in the Goldfish bag, and telling scary stories. Gilbert's small, scared voice requesting, “Can we leave the bag open a crack?” is surely a sentiment that children have felt at one time or another.

See for other upcoming conferences, including Kid Power 2006 (May 7-11, 2006). For more details on IQPC, write to Jennifer Noe, marketing manager, 535 Fifth Avenue, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10017.

Sidebar: Feeding Time

Recommended Snack Choices to Expand Children's Texture Experience

6 - 12 Months

• Small banana slices

• Unsweetened, adult-type applesauce

• Canned/fresh cooked, diced, unsweetened pears or peaches

• Toast

• Soft, cold, cooked vegetables (i.e., carrots, green beans)

1 - 2 Years

Avoid foods which might promote gagging such as: nuts, popcorn, raisins, olives, sunflower seeds, corn nuts, hard candies, and regular or chunky peanut butter.

Suggested snacks include:

• Peeled apple, or peach, thinly sliced

• Peeled orange, membrane removed

• Vegetables, soft cooked

• Meats, tender, small bites

• Plain yogurt, sweetened with pureed fruit

• Cottage cheese

• Hard cooked egg

• Fresh strawberries, watermelon and banana

2 - 4 Years

• Cut-up raw vegetables with yogurt dip

• Unsweetened vegetables with milk

• Peanut butter balls

• Oatmeal cookies with milk

• Cheese/peanut butter/vegetable soup with crackers

• Frozen juice bars

• Deviled eggs with whole-grain crackers

Over 4 Years

Includes the same as those suggested for the 2 - 4 year olds and the following:

• Popcorn sprinkled with parmesan cheese

• Nut cookies with milk

• Almonds, walnuts, peanuts mixed with dried fruit

• Pumpkin or sunflower seeds with cheese wedges

• Pretzels

• Muffins

Source: Association of Pediatric Nutritionists at the Phoenix Children's Hospital/KidsFoodTrends