Manufacturers of niche products take children's nutrition beyond the realm of dairy. Lynda Searby reports
Food manufacturers have been busy of late, taking so-called 'nasties' out of their products in a bid to demonstrate that they are doing their bit to save children from high cholesterol levels, early-onset diabetes and other health problems linked to soaring obesity rates.
But improving children's health through their diets is not just about what not to eat. It's also about what to eat. Broadly speaking, products that make a positive contribution to kids' health fall into two camps: those with 'intrinsic health benefits' — for example, oats, orange juice and peanuts — and those with 'added health benefits.'
In Europe, the vast majority of products with 'added health benefits' have so far been dairy products with a probiotic, calcium or omega-3 sell.
Of these three propositions, calcium is the largest and most established, probably owing to the fact consumers are well aware of its benefits.
Although a far more recent phenomenon, probiotics have made a big impact in a short space of time.
Probiotic daily-dose dairy drinks were introduced as an adult health aid in the mid 1990s. However, as the category matures, the major players are shifting their focus to children. And more than anywhere else in Europe, the UK has become an intense battleground, with products like Nestlé's Munch Bunch Drinky+, Yoplait's Petit Filous Plus and Danone's Actimel fighting it out in the playground.
Acceptance of Omega-3s
Omega-3s may only be in their infancy as ingredients in kids' nutritional products but their well-documented role in brain and eye development has earned them credibility in the eyes of the consumer.
"DHA is important for brain and eye development and function throughout the life cycle, but is particularly important during the first two years of life and early childhood," explains Phil Fass, executive director of sales and marketing with Martek Biosciences Corporation, the US supplier of micro-algae-source DHA. "Between birth and five years of age, the human brain increases approximately 3.5 times in mass. It is important that children consume adequate amounts of DHA in their diet to support this period of rapid brain and eye growth and development."
While the dairy sector seems to be a fertile breeding ground for kids' nutritional products, this success story shows little sign of being replicated in other market sectors. Julian Mellentin, executive director of the Centre for Food and Health Studies and an industry consultant on functional foods, believes the main reason for this is prohibitively high raw-materials costs. "The raw-material costs for dairy are very low compared to other categories. Therefore, you can add more expensive ingredients without pushing the price beyond consumers' purchasing range."
That said, products are emerging in categories other than dairy. Martek's DHA, for example, has so far been used in a broad range of products, among them Odwalla Soymilk, a soy milk with omega-3s and inulin available on the US market, and Junior Horlicks, a fortified powdered drink sold in India.
However, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these are mainly niche products. "There's a huge question mark over whether you can make any headway in other categories. Sure products exist, but they are marginal products in comparison to functional dairy products and they are sold at premium prices to health conscious mothers," says Mellentin.
One product carving out a niche in the UK market is Supajus, an omega-3-enriched orange juice from The Natural Fruit and Beverage Company. The drink, which targets children of eight years old and up, has attracted a loyal following since its arrival two years ago.
However, its move into the mainstream has been hampered by its lofty price point, according to the company's owner, Gerry Dunn.
"When our 250ml pouches for .79 [$1.48] are sitting next to a litre of .80 [$1.50] orange juice, it looks very expensive. Yet for the people who understand omega-3s, cost is no barrier."
Interestingly, when Supajus was launched, public awareness of omega-3s was so low that the drink's maker decided against a front-of-pack omega-3s message. Since then, every time the label has been reprinted, the omega-3s message has been made more prominent — testament to how rapidly consumer understanding of omega-3s has grown.
"Awareness has grown a lot in a short space of time," says Dunn. "I think that's because the message comes from a variety of sources, including medical experts, so it's one the public accepts. But it's a long haul."
John Kurstjens is global marketing manager with Lipid Nutrition, a Netherlands-headquartered manufacturer of DHA and EPA under the Marinol brand. As he points out, it is still early days for omega-3s in kids' products in the UK, and the rest of Europe has still to catch up.
A lagging US market
If the rest of Europe lags behind the UK, the US market is less developed still, according to Mellentin. "When it comes to kids' products, the US market is a lot more timid than the European and Asian markets; you don't really see any products that contain omega-3s or probiotics, and if you do, they're marginal brands. All the growth in kids' products in the US is in natural products."
In the US, the burden of responsibility to address concerns about childhood obesity is weighing heavily on the school food-service industry. Operators have responded with some interesting ways of improving children's nutrition during school hours. For example, Sodexho, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based food-service operator, has purchased equipment that enables pupils in more than 100 schools across the US to opt for carbonated fruit juice with their lunches. Another operator, Good Food Enterprises, has launched cookies with added omega-3s in elementary schools in the state of Ontario. Branded 'Mr Cookie,' the cookies contain Meg-3 brand omega-3s from Ocean Nutrition Canada. Each nut-free, trans-fat-free cookie delivers a 25mg dose of omega-3s.
While kids' products with 'added health benefits' are few and far between in the US retail channel, there are some niche products that are quietly rallying consumer support. For example, Stonyfield Farm's YoKids — an organic whole-milk yoghurt containing inulin and live cultures — has enjoyed unfettered growth since launch.
And Lifeway Foods, America's largest maker of kefir — the fermented dairy drink that originates in Eastern Europe — launched Probugs Organic Whole Milk Kefir earlier this year. It comes in child-oriented Orange Creamy Crawler and Sublime Slime Lime flavours and contains inulin and 10 live cultures.
Consumers might only just be coming to grips with omega-3s and probiotics, but product developers are constantly on the lookout for the ingredients that could shape the products of tomorrow.
New ingredients with potential
Pycnogenol from Horphag Research is a plant extract derived from the bark of a Maritime pine that grows along the southwest coast of France. It has been found to contain a combination of procyanidins, bioflavonoids and organic acids, and has health benefits that are supported by more than 200 published studies.
It is already available in more than 500 dietary supplements, multivitamins and health products, and a recent study published in the journal European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that in the future it could have application in kids' nutritional products.
The study found that supplementing children's diets with the pine-bark extract may help relieve symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
The difficulty with any new ingredient is that it needs to win consumer confidence before it can be translated into a product that will sell.
"Mothers will only give their children things they have heard of and understand," says Mellentin. The one area where he believes there could be scope for development is prebiotic soluble fibres.
GTC Nutrition is a US company that specialises in providing manufacturers with ingredient solutions that enable them to make health claims. Its NutraFlora ingredient is a prebiotic fibre derived from cane or beet sugar, which supports the growth of probiotic bacteria, promoting calcium absorption and a strong immune system. Including NutraFlora in its Yo Yo's and Baby Yogurt lines has enabled US organic dairy producer Horizon Organics to make an on-pack structure function claim relating to improved calcium absorbtion.
US ingredients supplier Roxlor, meanwhile, predicts that in the future, we are likely to see cereal manufacturers using fruit extracts to boost the antioxidant content of cereals, granola bars, snacks and beverages. The company supplies a grape-seed extract called Vinanza Gold, which is water soluble and said to be easily added to these products.