Childrens Wellness: A Food & Supplement Perspective

Now more than ever, parents are in search of ways to stave off rising childhood obesity rates, assuage food allergies and prevent the onset of developmental conditions.

By Joanna Cosgrove
Contributing Editor

The news is sobering: our children are dangerously overweight and sedentary. Researchers warn that drastic changes must be made before bad food and lifestyle choices irreversibly erode a child’s longevity and quality of life. The good news is that there’s been forward progress by the food and beverage industry, health officials, schools and parents to enact positive change. Ingredients used to manufacture foods and beverages have been beefed up with healthier nutritional profiles touting high fiber, whole grain and improved vitamin and mineral contents. Marketing efforts used to promote kid-friendly foods and beverages have also changed, thanks to the realization that parents are more carefully scrutinizing what their children are consuming, both visually on the television and at mealtime. And on an everyday level, school lunch menus have been retooled to include healthy food and beverage options, while excluding sugary sodas in an effort to put children back on the road to healthier living. The bad news is that there’s still a long way to go from here.

The Food & Beverage Connection

The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report “Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up?,” released in September, confirmed one-third of American children are obese or are at risk of becoming obese. In fact, the rate of childhood obesity inched up from 16% in 2002 to just over 17% in 2004, and is forecasted to reach 20% in four years. As it stands now, one in five children in the U.S. will be obese by the year 2010.

Sugar, fat, sodium and portion control continue to be the key culprits in the battle against childhood obesity, but Alison Kretser, senior director, nutrition and health policy, Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Washington, D.C., asserts that food and beverage manufacturers are doing more to guide consumers along the path of meeting dietary guidelines. “Manufacturers use sugar, sodium and fat to make foods more palatable, but now we know it’s about the type of fat versus the amount, so the industry is reformulating with healthier fats,” she says. “Plus, there are a lot of new products and re-formulated products designed for improving health. We have seen an increase in the number of products that provide whole grains, for instance, as well as low-fat dairy products.” She points specifically to the yogurt category where there has been a tremendous upswing in products designed for children vis-à-vis smaller portion sizes, kid-friendly flavors and packaging designed for smaller hands and lunchboxes.

“Most food companies have been taking a functional foods approach to re-marketing their existing products,” says James Richardson, PhD, director cultural insights at Bellevue, WA-based The Hartman Group Inc., which recently published the report “Children’s Wellness 2006: At the Intersection of Hope & Anxiety.” “Some have developed ‘functional’ lines with added nutritional ingredients designed to mimic the effect of supplements that have been on the market for years. We have not witnessed a significant reduction in legacy products from company portfolios, although emphasis on innovation has clearly shifted to ‘healthy’ new product development across the board. Most large companies tend to focus on ‘health’ innovations that the mid-level of the ‘Wellness World’ would not find that impressive (e.g. no trans-fat, all natural, low sugar).”

The re-labeling of foods like sweetened breakfast cereals advertising claims of “whole grains” or “high fiber” are successful at giving parents peace of mind, while appeasing their kids’ wants. “Cereal is a tough category, one where parents and kids are more likely to fight it out,” says The Hartman Group’s Michelle Barry, PhD, senior vice president, Consumer Insights & Trends. “Getting breakfast into kids is tough enough. Parents want their kids to get a good start in the morning so that they’ll have the energy to get through the day.” Dr. Barry adds that if children are determined to consume a pre-sweetened cereal, parents may concede with some peace of mind if the product offers some modicum of nutritional benefit.

A clearer example of how food manufacturers are endeavoring to reinforce the notion of portion control is best evidenced in the expanded usage of “100 Calorie” packs, which Ms. Kretser deems to be a helpful educational tool for consumers, helping them remember and recognize what constitutes an appropriate portion size when later faced with a multiple-serve product.

Food allergies are another mounting concern for parents. In 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that food allergies impacted 6-8% of children. Flash forward to the present and that number seems small, especially to the growing number of parents with children who have egg, milk, wheat, soy and nut intolerances, prompting them to search for natural and organic specialty food substitutes. The demand for specialty foods has also been impacted by parents distressed by the prospect of developmental concerns related to the consumption of artificial chemicals and hormones found in staple foods.

A Place for Supplements?

Interestingly enough, as dietary issues continue to be of concern, sales figures for products within the children’s wellness category have increased. According to SPINS, a San Francisco, CA-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry, the children’s wellness segment—comprised of children’s herbal formulas, natural/homeopathic medicines, vitamins and minerals—is valued at more than $135 million, a 2% increase over last year (tabulated over 52 weeks ending 8/12/06).

When it comes to the use of nutraceuticals for children’s wellness needs, a parent’s own usage behavior is often the best indicator of how they will care for their children, says Hartman Group’s Dr. Barry. “If the parents tend to be more preventive-minded and savvier about food ingredients and supplements, they tend to pass those behaviors on to their children,” she says. “We do see that there is more preventative action in things ranging from vitamins and green supplements to experimental use of homeopathy, which has been one of the bigger surprises in that you can find these types of products in mainstream grocery stores now, when a few years ago, no one really knew what those little cylinders of homeopathic remedies were.”

Hyland’s Inc., of St. Louis, MO, is a perennial fixture in the homeopathic remedy segment. The company’s Calms Forté 4 Kids is designed to safely and effectively counteract mental and physical restlessness in children from age two and up. Formulated to be a calmative solution to restlessness, the product addresses the causes that inhibit a child from sleeping well, including night terrors, growing pains, and sleeplessness from vacation travel, while promising that the child won’t wake up groggy like they might if given over-the-counter drugs containing diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl)—a significant concern for school-age children who need to be alert first thing in the morning.

Just as some foods are specially formulated to appeal to food allergy sufferers, so too is a new breed of nutritional supplements. Animal Parade Vita-Gels Multi-Vitamin and Mineral Supplement from Natural Organics Inc., Melville, NY, is billed as a “life-stage nutritional formula” for “tweens.” The product’s broad nutrient profile includes omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, as well as 20 essential vitamins and minerals and 14 whole foods in a small cherry-flavored soft gel that can either be chewed of swallowed—a dosage form that helps kids graduate from chewable tablets.

Even more specifically formulated is NanoVM from Solace Nutrition of Warwick, RI, which is designed for children with either multiple food allergies, celiac disease, autism or other conditions that cause food group(s) containing critical nutrients to be omitted from one’s diet. NanoVM meets the clinical criteria of certain childhood chronic diseases (hypoallergenic, gluten-free, etc.) and at the same time provides all of the micronutrients required for good health. What makes NanoVM unique is that its design is consistent with the current Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). Unlike other pediatric supplements, NanoVM contains all 14 vitamins and 12 minerals in quantities directly related to the DRIs of the particular age groups. Two packets per day provide 100% of the DRI.

In addition to the DRI age-specific nutritional profile, Solace Nutrition has microencapsulated the nano-sized vitamin and mineral particles to protect the ingredients being delivered to the body. The microencapsulation of some of the 26 different vitamin and minerals yields a product with very little taste and no medicinal aftertaste, eliminating the need for artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives.

Launched in April, NanoVM is not available on store shelves; rather it’s recommended by healthcare professionals and/or can be ordered through Solace’s website.

In addition to finished products, a variety of individual supplement ingredients have demonstrated promise for children. For instance, a study conducted by Purdue University, determined children deficient in omega 3 fatty acids were more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurobehavioral disorder defined as age-inappropriate impulsiveness, lack of concentration and sometimes excessive physical activity.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega 3 fatty acid found in fish oil that is considered an important brain nutrient. Studies have shown that DHA may play an important role in brain development and reducing cognitive decline. DHA may also play a role in managing behavior and mood, as the Purdue study found, and it may help some children be more productive in school.

More recently, a Swiss study linked Pycnogenol with a reduction of ADHD symptoms in children. The study, published in the June 17th edition of the Journal of European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, demonstrated a significant reduction of ADHD symptoms in children after supplementing with Pycnogenol, an antioxidant plant extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree, everyday for one month.

In the randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study, Pycnogenol helped reduce hyperactivity and improve attention, concentration and motor-visual coordination in children with ADHD.

“These findings are especially notable for parents who are concerned about overmedicating children diagnosed with ADHD. Many families are seeking natural options to avoid the potentially dangerous side effects of prescription drugs,” says Dr. Peter Rohdewald from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Germany’s University of Munster, and one of the authors of the study. “The results of this study show Pycnogenol may serve as a safe, effective treatment for children diagnosed with ADHD. French maritime pine bark extract reduced hyperactivity among study participants, while improving attention and visual-motor coordination and concentration of these children.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 8% of American children are diagnosed with ADHD and half of those children are taking medication for this disorder. Stimulant medications such as Ritalin, Dexedrine and Adderall are the most common treatments for ADHD, the side effects of which often include depression, anxiety and irritability.

While parents are usually keen on offering their child a daily morning multivitamins or occasional zinc supplement to ward off a cold, Dr. Barry warns that supplement usage occasions are prone to suffer when parents are presented with mixed messages about a supplement’s benefits or lack thereof. Not wanting to experiment with their children’s health, more parents are apt to turn to food-based alternatives in lieu of supplements.

Marketing to Kids

Whether it’s on TV or online, kids are inundated with advertising messages. Couple that with the fact that preschoolers aged 3 to 5, younger kids aged 6 to 8, and “tweens” aged 9 to 11—a compact consumer group that’s nearly 36 million kids strong—continue to pack a punch in purchasing power, which in 2005 was estimated to be $18 billion, according to “The Kids Market in the U.S.,” a report from New York-based market research publisher Packaged Facts.

The report projects the kids market will experience substantial growth during the next four years, reaching $21.4 billion in disposable income by 2010. Concurrently, families spend more than $115 billion on kids in key consumer areas, such as food, clothing, personal care items, entertainment and reading materials. Almost half of this total, $58.3 billion, is devoted to food expenditures.

Prevention magazine’s 14th annual “Shopping for Health” survey, conducted in partnership with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), revealed that many shoppers face challenges in getting their children to maintain healthful diets. Of the shoppers polled, 66% reported that their children eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables (five daily servings) more than two days a week, with just 22% achieving that goal every day.

Mounting concern about children’s health issues has focused a new spotlight on the potential business and societal risks related to kid-centric marketing. “The major industry-wide efforts to proactively respond to kid issues, such as obesity, internet safety and the appropriateness of marketing and promotions directly targeting children, have certainly impacted the market,” said Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts. “While these need to continue to be major concerns, marketers would be wise to adapt to the rapidly evolving consumer attitudes and habits of today’s media-saturated kids—and their families—by going beyond what’s politically correct to find more meaningful and age-affirming ways to reach this demographic where they are.”

While little has overtly changed with regard to the bricks and mortar kid-appeal of children’s food and beverage advertisements, one noteworthy feature blended into more commercials is the attempt to make a connection not just with kids, but to their parents too. “Advertisements that used to be almost exclusively geared toward kids are now geared toward kids and parents,” observes Hartman Group’s Dr. Barry. “Parents constantly have to negotiate with their children about what’s good and what’s bad for them. As a result, parents have become very verbal about, for instance, food advertisements that are all over children’s television networks. The sensitivity has gotten so heightened that there’s been a consumer-driven change, where marketers are having to respond to parents who’ve gotten kind of ticked off.”

Looking Ahead

When asked what the future holds for the children’s wellness segment, Dr. Barry says consumers should expect ingredients, meals and the very notion of the word “healthy” to become increasingly micromanaged. “Moms are saying it’s increasingly difficult to prepare meals that are personalized to each member of the family—one child may be vegetarian, one may be lactose or wheat intolerant, mom’s trying to lose weight, dad has high blood pressure,” she says. “As we learn more about food and in particular, supplements, that will shift. As fortified foods pick up the pace, mealtime may be more difficult to negotiate.”

The fascinating, emerging science of nutrigenomics (the complex molecular-level study pioneered by Rutgers University that examines how common chemicals found in food affect health by altering the function or structure of a person’s genetic make-up) is yet another factor that can potentially alter the way families shop for foods and eat meals together. “Nutrigenomics can highly impact children’s nutrition because it’s all about prevention and right now prevention is almost a way of living,” comments Dr. Barry. “Parents want to know what their children might be predisposed to and at the end of the day when science starts nailing down specific things that we’re subjected to, everything from food and drinks to supplements will change as the prevention angle goes through the roof.”
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