Kids have strange eating habits. Days may go by when a 5-year-old refuses everything but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and what was a hit last night may be a child's least favorite food in the whole world by tomorrow. Considering the special nutritional needs of growing bodies, it may be that vitamins and supplements are even more critical for kids than they are for adults.
In addition to multivitamin and mineral supplements for kids, there are seasonal formulas for immune strength, essential fatty acids for brain health and dozens more supplements for a variety of needs. And in addition to chewable tablets, customers can now choose vitamins in liquid and powdered form, as well as in the shape of lollipops and gummy bears. With so many products and so many delivery systems available, how can retailers offer sound advice to parents looking to make the right choices for their kids?
"Parents should begin by helping children focus on the foods they eat in order to develop healthy habits for a lifetime," says Dominique Adair, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in Santa Monica, Calif. "Then supplement any deficiencies with a multivitamin designed for children."
That approach is seconded by Jennifer Workman, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist with The Balanced Approach in Boulder, Colo. "It's rare that most kids are getting everything they need in their diets," she says. "So it's a good idea to supplement with a basic multivitamin and mineral product."
Children's vitamins are generally sweetened to make them palatable for kids. The amount of sweetener is a small part of the overall diet. "If I had a dollar for every time I've seen a kid spit out a multivitamin, I'd be rich," says Gretchen Vannice, R.D., research coordinator for Nordic Naturals, based in Watsonville, Calif. "The bottom line is that a multi in chewable or liquid form is more acceptable with a sweetener involved. Parents should look for a moderate dosage of vitamins from natural sources, free of fillers, binders and artificial colors or artificial sweeteners."
The issue of taste is much more critical for children than for adults. Children, as any parent can attest, aren't particularly interested in taking something just because it's good for them. "Our philosophy is to make great-tasting products that supplement a healthy diet," says Kate Jones, vice president and owner of Nutrition Now in Vancouver, Wash. "Children's products with poor taste will not be purchased a second time. Parents will not fight with their children every day over a vitamin."
Dosage is a key consideration for children who generally don't need mega doses of vitamins. As a general rule—and remember, supplements are supposed to supplement dietary nutritional intake, not replace it—50 percent to 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowance of each nutrient is a suitable dosage for children.
Finding the right delivery system is another key issue in getting kids to love their vitamins. Some kids love chewable tablets, while others gravitate toward more candylike offerings, such as gummy bears and sour worms. There are also liquid supplements—a necessity for certain ingredients that can't be tableted, such as EFAs—and powdered supplements that can be mixed in water or juice.
Parents need to consider whether they want to provide a vitamin that so closely resembles candy. The plus is that such vitamins are generally readily accepted by children; the concern is that candylike chewables may cause some confusion about what's healthy and what isn't. "It is true that supplements that taste good might be mistaken for candy," Jones says. "We use childproof caps and formulate our products to be safe even if a child accidentally eats too many. We also recommend that parents keep all vitamins out of the reach of children." Not all multivitamin mineral supplements have the same array of ingredients or the same dosages. "What a child needs depends on constitution, diet, activity and digestion," Workman says. "For children, magnesium is a calming mineral, and calcium and B vitamins are also critical."
"New research says magnesium and choline are critical to brain development," says Kathy Martino, sales manager for Hero Nutritionals, based in San Clemente, Calif., manufacturers of the Yummi Bears line of children's supplements. "Choline helps with nerve impulse and brain function, and the B vitamins support brain health as well as energy and immune function. Kids can't possibly get enough of these from food sources, so you have to supplement."
In addition to minerals and vitamins, there are other more specialized products that can be very helpful in supporting children's health. Perhaps the most important are EFA supplements. "Children have a great need for essential fats," Vannice says. "For growing brains and developing bodies, the research is very clear that kids need the long-chain omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA. Parents can only be doing their kids a favor in a big way by giving them EFAs."
Vannice cites research that suggests omega-3s are especially useful in helping kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or aggressive behaviors. This research shows that children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3s than other children, and that children who supplement with omega-3 are calmer and less aggressive. EFAs, and particularly omega-3s, are also linked closely to healthy brain function, and may lower the risk of depression and dementia later in life.
In addition, because the American diet is rich in omega-6 but not in omega-3 (which comes mainly from fish oil), supplementation is necessary to achieve the proper balance of EFAs in the body. Oils, of course, can't be put in a tablet, but Nordic Naturals offers flavored, liquid supplements in a cod-liver-oil base and chewable softgels for children.
Other supplements for children may be helpful for seasonal or condition-specific usage, though they aren't required for everyday health. One good example is the use of immune-boosting herbs such as echinacea and elderberry, particularly at the start of school and during the winter months when colds and flu are most prevalent.
"If my young children were headed back to school, I'd probably give them an immune-boosting supplement and additional vitamin C," Martino says. "Kids are little breeders of germs, like walking petri dishes. Why not be proactive and boost their systems? It can't hurt them and can certainly help them."
For retailers helping parents make supplement choices for their kids, it may work best to begin with some common-sense questions: What are the children eating? Are they picky eaters, or do they eat fish, fruits and vegetables? Are they headed back to school? Do they tend to have good or poor concentration?
For more detailed analysis of a child's nutritional needs, concerned parents can also be guided toward a registered nutritionist or dietitian who can provide a fuller picture. Many supplements, regardless of delivery system or flavor profile, provide a similar list of ingredients and dosages for the required vitamins and minerals, so finding the best one for a particular child may be a matter of taste. Keeping sample bottles of all children's supplements on hand to sample for parents can be a useful way of making sure that the product a parent takes home today won't come back tomorrow as a return.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 46