Kids are asserting their purchasing power at a much younger age, giving them the ability to make their own product choices.

Charrots and Popicsans… Research with Kids!

Anju Holay, Contributing Editor

Asking kids/teens for new product ideas can yield interesting results. Kids enthusiastically responded with some creative suggestions, when asked (in a recent study by this author), “If you could design a new product, what are the two existing products you would cross, to make a new product that would be interesting to you and to others?” One 16-year-old boy suggested that it could be helpful to have the capability to consume vegetables and meat at the same time, and thus created “charrots” (chicken plus carrots) and “ceefs” (carrots plus beef).  An 11-year-old girl suggested crossing more flavors with traditional popcorn, thus creating the savory “popicsans”...garlic-parmesan-cheese popcorn!

Injecting a little creativity and fun into product development research can yield vast rewards. Talking to kids (defined, for this article, as those aged 11-18) reveals interesting insights, not only about the market targeted to them, but also about the general market as a whole—and, more importantly, the market that will be.

Savvy in many ways, this age segment has been raised with a proliferation of exposure and a “never known any different” approach to cell phones, the Web, iPods, iPhones, texting and Facebook. Rarely subjected to the inconvenience of a cassette tape (much less an 8-track), nor ever needing a dictionary (who needs one, when there is, this demographic is unbelievably comfortable in the technological world. Given this technology proficiency, an online approach to kids’ research brings a lot of participation enthusiasm and yields rich, in-depth and unfiltered (due to anonymity) insights. Original research conducted by this author, utilizing Focus Forums™ software (, was undertaken in order to develop a window into kids’ eating habits, drivers and desires. The tool used in this research is commonly known in the qualitative research industry as an “online bulletin board,” or by the more kid-friendly term of “online discussion group.”

Utilizing the Focus Forums software platform, kids were able to respond any time of day or night, with the option of logging in from anywhere or even texting their responses. Graphics, videos (including You Tube) and web links could be (and were) utilized as part of the discussion.

Kids’ eating habits are of burgeoning importance in the press, medical field and in homes. Alarming childhood obesity statistics are reported for the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over the last 30 years, the rates of obesity in children have tripled.  Efforts to encourage improved weight management are underway in the Obama administration, along with support from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), 49 prominent health and medical organizations, and 44 prominent physicians and nutrition experts. The Washington Post summarized the staggering impact of obesity, “The cumulative effect could be the country’s first generation destined to have a shorter life span than its predecessor. A 2005 analysis by a team of scientists forecast a two-to-five-year drop in life expectancy, unless aggressive action manages to reverse obesity rates.”

Talking to kids directly sheds light on how to help address this problem and provides insights for food manufacturers’ product development efforts. Please note, this research was conducted with middle-to-upper income children; lower-income kids’ reactions might deviate from those presented here.

Family First
The first observation is family members have the greatest influence/control on shaping eating habits. As a child becomes older, school, friends, magazines and the Web start weighing more heavily in their decisions. However, data from this research shows that, far and above all, family influences prevail. (See chart “Sources of Information.”)

Family members, usually parents, provide much of the information supplied to kids. Some 66% of kids feel their parents care “a lot” about the consumption of healthy foods, while another 29% say their parents care “somewhat.” Comparatively speaking, the kids are less concerned (no big surprise), with some 31% reporting they care “a lot,” and another 64% claiming to care “somewhat.” When asked, “If you could change one thing about your parent(s)’ attitude toward what you eat and drink, what would it be?” the most common response was along the lines of, “Nothing really, they do a good job with what they are supposed to do.”

The most common wish was for more freedom and independence in food choices, at least occasionally, in the form of allowing treats from time-to-time, or being able to select dinner one day a week, with the understanding that the child will eat healthy “most of the time.” Interestingly, occasionally, the response given was the wish for their parents to “care more.”

The information obtained from family members and other sources seems to be getting through. When asked, “Why eat healthy?” one 18-year-old succinctly conveyed one reason: “I know that when I eat healthy, I feel better about myself. I think it’s like when you work out, you just feel better about yourself, even if you look exactly the same afterward. And when you feel better, you project yourself better, so you automatically look better too.” Furthermore, kids echoed many of their parents’ reasons: to avoid disease (especially when heart disease and diabetes runs in the family), to perform better in sports and to do better in school.

Television is the second most important influence in regards to healthy eating. Several of the kids in the NSM Research study reported watching cooking shows. One 13-year-old said, “Alton Brown has a show called Good Eats. He teaches you a lot about food and where things originated and how they became commercial. He also tells you the chemical reactions and what the food does for your body.”

Besides providing nutritional information, TV is also responsible for exposing kids to numerous advertisements for candy, snacks, cereal and fast food. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Food for Thought: Television Advertising to Children in the United States,” found ads for fruit juices and dairy products were minuscule, while there were no ads for fruits and vegetables. “TV is all junk food,” summarized a 14-year-old in the online discussion group.

Cost and Availability Impact Habits
Though kids in the 11-18 age range are generally not purchasing the majority of their own food, they do realize that certain foods cost more; specifically, healthy foods may cost more. Cost is less of a consideration at home, but becomes more important when making choices at school or at fast food restaurants. When eating at home, product selection is typically determined by and paid for by parents. One 13-year-old shares, “I do think that money has something to do with eating healthy. I mean, if you shop at Whole Foods and you get all the organic stuff, that’s definitely more money. Even at Jewel, the produce is more money than a bag of chips.” Commenting on the challenges of availability, she continues, “The problem is that most healthy food will go bad faster than junk food. That means you have to eat and then fast go get more.”

Given the current economic environment, there is likely some scaling back of purchasing healthy foods, even amongst middle-to-upper income families. (Editor’s note: An April 27, 2009, press release from Information Resources Inc. quotes IRI Consulting and Innovation president Thom Blischok as saying “...between 30-47% of consumers are buying less healthy products and fewer fresh produce and organic items.”)

On the other side of the economic fence, there are families in which the financial means to purchase healthy foods simply do not exist. According to The Washington Post, low-income people often choose higher calorie snacks and fast food, due to the grim reality that it is simply cheaper and more readily available. A 16-yr-old in the NSM Research Inc. study shared, “At my school, almost everyone makes less healthy choices, because it’s cheaper. The healthy food at my school gives smaller portions and costs up to $2 more per item.” Also, more nutritional choices may not be easily available.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation investigated this with USDA food-buying practices. They developed two side-by side pyramids, the first being the traditional USDA food-guide pyramid, the second based on actual USDA purchases for schools. Results showed the pyramids were reversed! Congress is due to update school lunch program rules this year; lawmakers are considering giving schools incentives to buy more fruits and vegetables.

In the NSM research, one student commented on a popular brand of mozzarella cheese-filled breadsticks that are commonly coated in oil. Mozzarella is the single food item on which the USDA spends the most. One 16-year-old comments, “They tell us to eat healthy, and then twice a week they offer…deep-fried mozzarella cheese. The funniest part of it is that you have to buy two of them at a time!” This awareness among such young consumers should be expected to be more prevalent as they grow up.

Informed Kids
Kids have interesting observations concerning the healthfulness of products, illustrating the integration of information obtained from several sources. A report by Mintel, “Kids’ and Teens’ Eating Habits–U.S.,” shows that teens, in particular, are receptive to healthy eating messages. Some 66% of teens believe “eating gives you energy/vitality,” and 61% say, “It’s important to eat a balanced diet.” When asked about their product selection criteria, Mintel found that 35% of kids and teens purposefully eat foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients, and 22% look for foods low in sugar. The Mintel report notes these results are somewhat surprising, given the seeming prevalence of fast food and unhealthy snacks for kids. But, it suggests that kids are more aware of not only what different foods can provide them (i.e., energy), but also what certain other foods can take away (i.e., a trim body and the energy to participate in sports and other activities). Thus, even if kids and teens still want junk food, at least they recognize there are better options.

To understand kids’ unaided reactions to a variety of product claims, kids participating in the NSM Research Inc. discussion group were presented with an online description, plus a photo of several products that had been selected with the criteria of being “recent product introductions with health claims targeted towards kids.” Kids were asked about how well they liked the products, as well as opinions on their healthfulness. Some had tried some products, whereas other products were completely unfamiliar to them. By utilizing a Focus Forums software option, they were restricted from seeing others’ responses, until they provided their own reactions. (See sidebar “Reflections on Kid-oriented Foods.”)

Kids appear able to judge and make relatively accurate assessments about a product’s promises, most likely based on the knowledge they have gained through parents, etc. Though not always choosing to make healthy selections, they do appear to possess many of the tools to scrutinize food claims and discern their believability.

Some kids appear quite cynical and judgmental about the veracity and usefulness of several current product claims, although many of these products are successful and have utility to some population segments. Comments one 18-year-old, “I always see the ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ stuff, and those ‘100-calorie packs,’ and they really annoy me. For one, the 100-calorie packs are not any better for you than the regular product of whatever you’re eating. They’re just a smaller portion of the same thing! Also, a lot of the low-fat/fat-free products aren’t really good for you, anyway, because they put so much other unhealthy stuff in the food to make it taste good, you might as well just eat the regular version of the food.”

Given the vast amount of information available from family members and other sources, it’s likely that these 11-18-year-olds will be more cynical than previous generations. Three factors will be evaluated: the convenience of a healthy food, the healthfulness and the value.

The responsibility of the food industry is to address the challenge of getting the right calories and right nutrients to kids at the point of consumption, in an affordable format. Getting kids in America to eat more “healthy” foods will require increasing access to healthy food; better informing and educating influencers about nutrition; and lowering the net cost of healthy foods, relative to other options. pf Anju Holay is the managing principal of NSM Research Inc. (Barrington, Ill.). She holds an M.B.A. in marketing from The University of Chicago and a B.S. in engineering from Northwestern University. The consultancy ( offers qualitative consumer research, innovation consulting and nutrition science marketing services.

Website Resources: -- Type in: “Child’s Play” or “Getting a “Thumb’s Up” on Kid Snacks” in the search field for archived articles focusing on the children’s market -- Supplier of data collection and online focus group services -- Next Step Marketing Research, specializing in consumer and marketplace insights, qualitative research and innovation consulting



Reflections on Kid-oriented Foods
Kids participating in the NSM Research Inc. discussion group were presented with an online description and photo of several products that had been selected with the criteria of being “recent product introductions with health claims targeted towards kids,” courtesy of Mintel Inc. Kids were asked to “please tell me about the following...products. For each product, please tell me: Is this healthy/not and why? Aside from healthiness, what do you think about this product? Would you regard this product as ‘for you’ or ‘for someone else’?” Using an option with the Focus Forums™ software, participants were restricted from seeing others’ responses until providing their own.

Going for the Gold
In the online discussion group, the panelists were asked to think about Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish crackers and asked whether they liked them, or not, and why. Secondly, they were asked if they considered it to be healthy, or good-for-you, and why. Selected responses are as follows.
*  “They are whole grain (I know for sure).” (11-yr-old)
*  “They seem like they could be high in sodium, because they always seem salty when I eat them.” (16-yr-old)
*  “It’s my substitute for chips. They’re a little bit salty, instead of very salty, like chips, but crunchy like chips are. They’re also a lot healthier.” (14-yr-old)
* “It seems kind of two-faced when I say I don’t like cheese, but I love goldfish. Just do.” (14-yr-old)
Source:  NSM Research Inc., utilizing Focus Forums™ online bulletin board software