Whether in the US or Europe, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity rates are soaring among children. Patrick McGuigan assesses the food industry?s new challenge: how to pack high-density nutrients into foods kids will love.
Childhood illnesses such as mumps, measles and rubella are now routinely vaccinated against, but doctors are preparing to fight a new wave of health problems that cannot be treated with a simple jab of a needle. Instead, people are looking to functional foods for kids as a possible solution.
Increasingly, children are being diagnosed with high cholesterol levels, early onset diabetes and other health problems linked to soaring obesity rates. The situation is causing alarm among parents, health professionals and governments alike, with the finger of blame often pointed at the food and drink industry for producing and promoting ?unhealthy? foods to children.
In response, the food industry is scrambling to defend itself, claiming unhealthy diets and lifestyles are the problem, not particular types of food. At the same time, companies are reducing portion sizes, putting money into healthy-eating awareness campaigns and beefing up the nutritional content of their products. Ingredients that have functional benefits, particularly in relation to obesity and related diseases, are attracting interest from manufacturers. In addition, the obesity debate has raised the profile of kids? nutrition in general, with functional products targeting other aspects of child health.
According to the American Obesity Association, 30 per cent of children in the US, aged 6-19, are overweight, and 15 per cent are obese. The prevalence of obesity in US children has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.
In the UK, research published in the British Medical Journal found that 22 per cent of children, aged 7-11, were overweight, with 11 per cent classed as obese. And young couch potatoes are not only confined to Western countries either. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that childhood obesity has gone up by one-fifth in China in the past 20 years, while in Brazil it has tripled.
In the US, the government?s Food and Nutrition Service tries to provide balanced, nutritious meals through its school meals programme, with a limited degree of success. Schools are also beginning to ban vending machines selling sugary soft drinks and confectionery, which has left opportunities for companies making healthier foods. Dairy company Stonyfield Farm, for example, has developed a ?healthy? vending machine that offers products such as organic low fat yoghurt, carrots and dip, and dried fruit. Similar initiatives are being launched in the UK, where the government has launched a ?five-a-day? campaign encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. It has also announced a $3.65 million pilot project to promote healthy eating in schools.
Ingredients companies are also coming up with answers to the obesity question. Back in the US, Debra Miller, director of nutrition communications at Missouri-based soy supplier Solae, says that soy offers several functional benefits to help fight childhood obesity. She recently gave a talk at the Kids Nutrition conference in New Orleans, outlining how soy can be beneficial in children?s diets.
?Kids today are overfed but undernourished,? she says. ?Using soy could be a way to reduce the amount of calories they take in, while also giving them health benefits. For example, studies have shown that girls going through puberty who eat soy are less likely to develop breast cancer later in life.?
Other important attributes include soy?s cholesterol-lowering properties and its good satiety effect. ?It can also be used in lots of different products,? Miller says. ?It can be used to make chicken nugget-style products, smoothies and chips.?
Calcium and other minerals are key
Another more established ingredient in children?s nutrition is calcium, which enjoys a good awareness level among parents for its bone-health benefits. But research also suggests that calcium can reduce childhood obesity. Several studies have found that kids with a high calcium intake tend to be slimmer.
It?s an issue that Ellis Hogetoorn, market development specialist at mineral supplier Purac America in Illinois, referred to in her presentation at the Kids Nutrition conference. The company is conducting its own research into the phenomenon, with the results expected to be announced in the summer.
?Childhood diseases are going to change in the next decade because of the way kids are leading their lives,? she says. ?At the conference, I talked about how calcium can help kids lose weight and prevent some of these problems. It is also vital in fighting rickets, which is showing signs of re-emerging in the US.?
Purac supplies calcium lactate and gluconate, which Hogetoorn says are two of the highest-performing calciums on the market. ?A combination of the two gets the best results,? she says.
Apart from calcium, Hogetoorn also highlights zinc, iron, magnesium and potassium as other key minerals for kids? nutrition.
?Kids have really busy lives and they can get stressed, which drains magnesium. With low magnesium levels it makes them even more stressed and they end up in a kind of vicious circle, which can result in things like depression,? Hogetoorn says. ?Zinc and iron are also important to promote healthy growth and prevent anaemia, respectively.?
Dairy gets functional
Many of Purac?s customers are interested in nutritional beverages, particularly juices, because they are convenient and already have a healthy image. Dairy applications are also attractive vehicles for minerals. The popularity of functional dairy products for kids has been highlighted by a recent spate of product launches.
In New Zealand, Anchor has introduced Mega Milk, which contains 40 per cent more calcium than whole milk, and has added vitamin D. In the US, Coca-Cola aims to head off criticisms of its fizzy drinks with Swerve—a non-fat milk drink that provides 30 per cent of the recommended daily intake of calcium, and vitamins A, C and D.
In the yoghurt category, Stonyfield Farm has launched YoBaby yoghurt for kids, which contains six active live cultures that enhance digestion, stimulate the immune system and suppress the growth of harmful bacteria. Along similar lines is Horizon Organic?s Yo-Yo NutraFlora yoghurt range for kids. NutraFlora is a branded soluble dietary fibre from Colorado-based GTC Nutrition, which is a prebiotic and increases calcium and magnesium absorption.
?NutraFlora gently fortifies the foundations of a healthy digestive system by nourishing the beneficial microflora in the lower digestive tract,? says GTC?s PR and communications specialist Denise Wagner. ?This has been demonstrated to reduce the duration and severity of childhood diarrhoea and reduce constipation. NutraFlora also increases microflora populations, especially lactobacilli and bifidobacteria; flourishing microflora produce short-chain fatty acids that are essential to the body?s immune functions.?
In addition, NutraFlora also has been shown to increase calcium by up to 50 per cent, she says. This has led the company to incorporate NutraFlora in a prebiotic mineral formulation called CalciLife, which ?adds a highly bioavailable calcium without the chalkiness found in many other calcium sources.?
?There are so many products?
At functional ingredients supplier Fortitech in New York, executive vice president of research and development Ram Chaudhari says that another important area of kids? nutrition involves complex carbohydrates.
?Many of our customers have been looking at energy boosters, for example, by incorporating vitamin B complex,? he says. ?Youngsters are so active that they require the sustained, slow-release energy from complex carbohydrates, and not just sugar. Rather than consuming empty calories, kids need food with a high nutrient density.?
Other areas of kids? nutrition that Chaudhari believes will grow in popularity include antioxidants such as green tea and carotenoids. ?This area is important for all types of people. Adults are starting to understand free radicals, and I think this will extend to children,? he says.
Indeed, understanding is key to the success of any type of functional food aimed at kids, says Chaudhari. ?There are so many products out there that it?s confusing. People are clear about a few classical nutrients such as calcium, but you need a good educational process for kids to understand about other vitamins, minerals and what good they are going to do. Using simple stories and graphic presentations is the best way to explain these things.?
Apart from education, Chaudhari says there are other basic elements a food manufacturer must get right if it is to have success in the kids? nutrition arena.
?Sweet products are always popular—it must taste really good. Colour and convenience are also vital. If a product doesn?t look and taste great, kids won?t eat it, no matter how good it is for them.?