The recent spate of media attention on the childhood obesity epidemic; the current Administration’s emphasis on improving child nutrition; parents’ growing awareness of the need to model healthy eating for their children; and the emergence of teen food bloggers means food and beverages for children are squarely in the spotlight. Consequently, prepared food products—and the ingredients that go into them—are increasingly under the microscope.

Consumer responses to the Mintel Group Ltd.’s June 2012 survey, “Attitudes Toward Healthy Food—U.S.,” indicate, “Americans are trying to create healthier children, as 67% of women and 57% of men claim to eat healthy food more often to set a good example for their kids.” That news is especially encouraging in light of an October 2009 study by the NPD Group that found the strongest influence on what children eat is their mother’s eating habits and nutritional knowledge.

In a news release promoting its offerings at IFT 2012, one large ingredient supplier pointed out: “U.S. regulatory and consumer group perspectives that are driving ‘better’ nutrition for children… are already impacting what children are consuming,” prompting food and beverage manufacturers to:

• add “positives,” such as whole grains and fiber.

• remove perceived “negatives,” such as excessive sodium.

• enhance nutrient density.

• provide balanced nutrition within a meal.

• deliver more kid-friendly tastes and textures within existing nutritious foods.

• make “treats” better-for-you.

Age-appropriate Aims

Trends in food products for adults tend to trickle down to children’s food, as well. For example, the annual survey-based study, “Shopping for Health 2012,” released in July by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Prevention magazine, notes that 32% of shoppers reported nutritional components are driving their food purchases more than in 2011. Specifically, 55% of shoppers reported switching to whole-grain bread; 33% now check labels for protein content; and 30% said they have moved from regular yogurt to Greek yogurt. Thus, it’s no coincidence that a look at new and reformulated foods for kids introduced in the past year reveals a significant shift to whole grains, greater emphasis on protein and a boom in Greek yogurt products.

In addition, due to differences in the nutritional needs among infants, toddlers, tots, tweens and teens, there is greater emphasis on the inclusion or exclusion of certain ingredients, or groups of ingredients, in foods for children, according to specific age groups. Added to this is the fact that label simplicity is key. This is especially critical when it comes to catering to infants, toddlers and children in pre-kindergarten through third grade. Parents want ingredients to be as simple and “natural” (even organic) as possible.

The younger the target market, the more likely it is any added ingredients will be vitamins, minerals or other nutrients vital to development. For example, experts on the consumer-facing website of the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents of toddlers and preschoolers to focus on making sure their children’s diets include plenty of calcium (for developing bones and teeth) and fiber (to prevent heart disease and other conditions, and to aid digestion and prevent constipation). But, beyond vitamins and minerals are ingredients deemed crucial to promote healthy brain development, such as omega oils—now provided in most infant formulas, as well as in foods for toddlers—and micronutrients, such as choline. A line from Nuture Inc./Happy Family Brands HappyBaby Organic features Greens Puffs, which are o-shaped “finger food for babies” with choline.

The vegetable and whole-grain Greens Puffs also reflect another infant- and toddler-focused initiative: exposing tots to a wide variety of vegetable-and-fruit combinations to help them develop a veggie-friendly palate. HappyBaby’s Stage 2 (6 months and older) pouches include mixtures such as Banana, Beet & Blueberry; Broccoli, Peas & Pear; and Spinach, Mango & Pear. For infants 7 months and older, HappyBaby’s Stage 3 products are pouched entrees, such as Amaranth Ratatouille and Gobble Gobble (a stew made from turkey, millet, sweet potato, potato, squash and apple). Besides combining meats, grains, fruits and vegetables in novel ways, several of these meals contain salba (chia seed), a high-protein, high-omega source.

Plum Organics Inc. is another bold exemplar of food combining. Its “Second Blends” pouch line for children 6 months and older includes varieties such as Broccoli Apple; Spinach, Peas & Pear; Zucchini, Banana & Amaranth; Sweet Potato, Mango & Millet; and Blueberry, Pear & Purple Carrot.

Next Step

“Feeding very young children is often a challenge, because their tastes change over time—sometimes rapidly—and they are sort of ‘supertasters,’” says Melissa Dobbins, RD, founder of consulting firm Sound Bites Inc. and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In the toddler and preschool years, children begin to exert more control over what they eat and can become exceedingly picky.

“They tend to perceive bitter tastes more strongly than adults, which is why they reject some foods. They also are more sensitive to texture and might reject a food if they don’t like how it feels in their mouth,” Dobbins avers.

While finicky eaters can raise their parents’ frustration level to the max, they represent terrific opportunities for intrepid food processors. Because this group is so selective and because school-age children are eating one to two meals (plus snacks) away from home each day, nutrient density becomes more important, as does vitamin fortification and flavor.

“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [formerly the American Dietetic Assn.] and the USDA have identified areas of nutrition concern for children, recognizing there are nutrients kids often fall short on, such as vitamin D, calcium and iron, in their daily food choices,” says Tara DelloIacono-Thies, registered dietitian for Clif Bar & Co.

“We hear from parents that they are looking for nutritious, ‘on-the-go’ snack options that can complement fresh fruit and also supply nutrients. It’s important to make sure kids’ meals and snacks have the right blend of nutrients to sustain their energy throughout the day, while also ensuring they meet their daily requirements of vitamins and minerals.”

DelloIacono-Thies points to ClifKid’s Zbar line, which addresses kids’ micronutrient needs by basing fortification on the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for children of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12, folate, C and D, as well as the minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

“ZBar [also] is made with organic whole grains, the primary source of carbohydrate and fiber in the bar. Carbohydrates are what keep muscles moving and minds thinking. Kids need a little bit of carbohydrates every couple of hours, from nutritious sources that also provide fiber,” adds DelloIacono-Thies.

For companies taking on the age-old responsibility for getting kids to eat their vegetables, finesse is the R&D tool of choice. Peas of Mind LLC launched eight years ago with the goal of creating foods to get more organic vegetables into the diets of the short-pants set. The California company sources the majority of its vegetables from California, Washington and Oregon and turns them into tasty finger foods.

“What makes us different is that we ‘reinvent’ the classics—the dishes kids love—such as pizza, French fries and clover-leaf rolls,” says Jill Litwin, company founder and CEO. “Each of our ‘Peas of Pie’ pizzas contains a serving and a half of vegetables. The Veggie Wedgies have the consistency of standard French fries, but a better nutritional profile. And, our newest product, Pull-a-Parts, are like cloverleaf bread rolls but with broccoli and carrots kneaded into the dough.” The rolls come in Nacho and Pizza varieties and are meant to be an afternoon snack or even a meal component.

In addition to the focus on vegetables, Peas of Mind products are very low in sugar, sodium and fat. The products that contain cheese use only part-skim, low-moisture mozzarella, which is a good source of protein. And, in the pizza dough, the vegetable content in the crust helps to moisten it, so the need for oil is reduced. Unbleached, vitamin-fortified bread flour from wheat and barley is also used. The wedgie fries are made in broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and apple flavors, with each 2oz serving only 70 calories, but loaded with vitamins and fiber.

Peas of Mind products also have an unexpected crossover appeal: adults. “We recently learned of a blogger who has lost a lot of weight and kept it off [who] has touted our Veggie Wedgies as a healthful, low-calorie way to get a French fry ‘fix,’” says Litwin. “He also wrote that our pizza is the best frozen pizza on the market. Maybe this is a sign of a trend—not only are adult food preferences and concerns about nutritional quality affecting children’s food choices, but healthier children’s foods might help adults rethink the choices they make.”

Tweens and Teens

Whether they play on middle- or high-school sports teams, or hit the local gym in the evenings, active tweens and teens need to replace nutrients lost during exercise. A new line of electrolyte replacement products aimed at 18-to-29-year-olds may well find favor with younger consumers. The SNAP Infusion “supercandy” line includes gum, gummy, jelly bean, caramel and tart candy varieties, all of which contain the full range of B-complex vitamins, as well as vitamins C and E, and the minerals calcium, phosphorus and potassium. The all-natural products provide 20-30% of the adult RDA for those vitamins and minerals, and have just 90-110 calories, depending on the variety.

“Our target market is 18-to-29-year-olds, but we know teens and even younger children will be interested too,” says SNAP Infusion CEO Andrea Stoll. “And, their parents will like that the product is low-calorie, has natural ingredients, and the Gum and Tart varieties contain xylitol, which has clinically proven dental benefits.”

The tween/teen demographic category also is one of the biggest consumers of snacks. This takes on special meaning for makers of children’s food products when the sheer growth factor of snacks in general is taken into consideration. The NPD Group projects that the double-digit rise in snacking will grow faster than the U.S. population, which is expected to rise at a 10% annual rate through 2018. NPD sees evening snacking on the rise by 15% for the 10-year period that began in 2008. Afternoon snacking—prime kid time—will rise 20%, and morning snacking will be the king, rising 23%, according to NPD.

With this in mind, General Mills rolled out Fiber One Chewy bars in Strawberry PB&J and Chocolate flavors geared especially for kids. The bars have 20% of fiber and 10% of calcium. Meanwhile, Decas Cranberry Products Inc. recently introduced a fruit-based, fruit-flavored snack designed for children: Funny Face Dried Cranberries, whose packaging uses cartoon characters from the 1960s that represent the various flavors (Goofy Grape, Rootin Tootin Raspberry, Freckle Face Strawberry and Choo Choo Cherry). The snack has half the sugar, 25% fewer calories and five times the fiber of traditional dried cranberries, according to Matt Devine, vice president of Decas.

“When you dry a cranberry, you usually have to add a lot of sugar to make it palatable,” says Devine. “But, our vice president of science and technology, Reza Ghaedian, Ph.D., developed and patented a process that adds only half the usual amount of sugar and supplements the infusion with an all-natural corn fiber that has a natural sweetness and gives our cranberries five times the fiber of a traditional dried cranberry. When we tested the product, the scores went through the roof, and sales have been growing by 13% annually.”

It’s All Greek

America’s love affair with Greek yogurt continues. According to multiple sources, Greek-style yogurt has grown from less than 1% of total U.S. yogurt sales to a 25% market share today, with Chobani Inc. and Fage USA Inc. brands as the top two producers. While those brands market to consumers of all ages, there is an ever-growing chorus of Greek yogurt products specifically formulated for children. In February 2012, Stonyfield Farm Inc. introduced its organic YoKids Greek yogurt (aimed at children aged 2-6) in raspberry and strawberry flavors. The company touts the product as a good source of protein (6g per serving) calcium, vitamin D, and six live and active probiotic cultures: L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, L. acidophilus, L. Bifidus, L. casei and L. rhamnosus.

This past summer, Plum Organics debuted three Greek yogurt blends in its Stage 2 line for babies 6 months and older. One combines cherries and sweet corn; another blends raspberries and spinach; and the third marries green beans to pears. For school-aged children, Plum’s Yogurt Mashups blend Greek yogurt with fruit purees, fruit juices, evaporated cane syrup and tapioca flour.

Ask many food manufacturers, “What’s new?” and they’re likely to answer “ancient grains,” such as quinoa, spelt and kamut. General Mills Inc., which recently introduced Ancient Grain Granola under its organic Cascadian Farm brand, points to data from the Mintel Group indicating launches of new products containing ancient grains have mushroomed since 2007. Cascadian Farm’s granola is based on quinoa, spelt and kamut.

Ancient grains are those that have been around for centuries and have not been engineered from their native forms. However, an article on ancient grains that appeared in the February 19, 2011, edition of the Los Angeles Times pointed out that ancient grains aren’t always safer: People with wheat allergies or sensitivities certainly can’t lower their guard, said Suzanne Teuber, M.D., professor of internal medicine, rheumatology and allergy at University of California, Davis.

“There has been a lot of misinformation about spelt and kamut being safe for patients with celiac disease or wheat allergy, when this is not the case,” Teuber states.  Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and teff, however, are free of gluten.

Under its Chex brand, General Mills is adding a gluten-free Apple Cinnamon variety. Citing the NPD Group’s “Eating Patterns in America” study, General Mills notes that about one in four U.S. consumers try to avoid gluten. Some of those people (approximately 3 million Americans, or 1% of the population) have celiac disease, according to General Mill’s spokesperson Kris Patton; experts believe about 6% of the population has a related and poorly understood condition known as gluten sensitivity. However, in a field of supply and demand, the tens of millions of consumers seeking gluten-free foods also are raising their children on gluten-free diets, which is likely to keep demand high for many years to come.

According to a 2010 study by HealthFocus International, top motivators influencing food and beverage choices for children (by percentage of parents indicating factors as “extremely” or “very” important in getting them to purchase products for their children) include whether the item “has better nutrition (64%)” and whether the parent “knows my children will eat it” (62%). “Price” is only third, at 61%, and “has better taste” is actually fourth, at 57%.

Still in the top 10 are whether a product has “more nutrients per serving” (50%); “is lower in sugar” (47%); “provides balanced energy” (45%); “contains no artificial sweeteners” (44%); “is higher in fiber” (44%); and “has no preservatives” (43%). Such overall trends, driving the creation of healthier foods and beverages for children, are expected to remain strong and continue to shape manufacturers’ focus.


Kid Food Formulation Trends

Other trends influencing the formulation of both adult and children’s food products include:

•A steady uptick in gluten-free offerings (helping to expose consumers to lesser-known grains, such as amaranth, millet and quinoa).

•Demand for products free of the major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans/shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy).

•Emerging awareness of “ancient grains.”

•A flurry of interest in fiber.

•An increase in vegetarian and vegan products (not so much a complete rejection of animal proteins, but a decision to eat meat less often for health or economic reasons).

•Greater understanding of the benefits of probiotics.

• Growing demand for snacks.

• Sodium under scrutiny.

• Avoidance of high-fructose corn syrup.

Colorants and Kids

There is an ongoing debate about the effect of certain food colorants on children, with special attention to the oft-cited 2007 “University of Southampton Study,” where the researchers declared a link between hyperactivity in children and the ingestion of synthetic colorants combined with sodium benzoate (a common preservative in carbonated beverages). While the study has been criticized for weaknesses in methodology and an arguably tenuous link between the data and the conclusions, it has generated enough energy among consumers in Europe that the global food (and food colorant) industry has been affected.

Throughout Europe, food manufacturers have been working to remove synthetic colorants from foods and beverages, replacing them with naturally derived or nature-identical alternatives. This trend is reaching the U.S. market, as well.

Color additives are used extensively in foods and beverages targeted to children. For children, brightly colored foods, such as confections, sweetened cereals and beverages, are visually stimulating and, therefore, attract more attention. Historically, these foods have been colored with synthetic food colorants.

These additives are certified by the FDA, and the industry has supported studies that confirm their safety. But, this can be small comfort to parents looking for answers, and in many cases, the conflicting information and opinions on the matter serve mainly to muddy the water. A case can certainly be made that color additives derived from natural sources “should” be safer, but most “natural colorants” have not been as extensively studied as the synthetic colorants they are replacing.

While the “Southampton Study” might not be as compelling as other studies, the growing body of science suggests many of the naturally derived food colorants have positive health benefits, a claim which cannot be made for synthetic colorants. Though used at relatively low levels, natural colorants can contribute positively to the overall micronutrient load of the diet. Also, naturally derived colorants typically arise from more sustainable processes. All these factors are likely to continue driving the trend toward naturally derived food colorants in products made for children.