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Kids' nutrition takes centre stage

The declining health of American children due to poor nutrition, obesity, lack of exercise and toxic environmental chemicals was the major theme of the Third Healthy Foods Conference

More than 200 executives and brand managers from major food companies including Hormel, Heinz, PepsiCo, Kroger and ConAgra met in Baltimore, Maryland, to discuss and debate the issues, including organic and natural products, personalized nutrition and the glycaemic index. But it was perhaps the seminar on the current crisis in children's health that sparked the most passionate debate.

Two thirds of children have one symptom of metabolic syndrome, something that was uncommon 20 years ago according to Alan Greene, MD, of "How we feed kids changes the way their brains are built," he said. "Our kids are undernourished — we have radically failed them."

We shouldn't stop marketing to kids, but we should market things to improve their health
He noted that marketing is the most powerful tool we have for changing dietary habits. "We shouldn't stop marketing to kids but we should market things to improve their health — and advertise healthy foods."

Delegates discussed the difficulties of providing children with good nutrition in a culture in which one in four meals in the US is now consumed inside an automobile.

Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley, California, Unified School District, cited the recent Centers for Disease Control's assessment that one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes, and thus will have shorter life spans than their parents. She pointed out that the government's school-lunch programme is desperately under funded, spending slightly more than $2 per day per student, far less than advertisers who are targeting children daily with highly processed junk foods.

Attendee John Ashby, general manager of California Natural Products, said the focus on children's nutrition was good because the message would drive the food industry toward healthier food choices. "The presentation by Dr Green, about French fries and Cocoa Puffs [being acceptable choices within the US Food Guide Pyramid] tells you how we can't let the government do this for us. [The food industry] needs to drive it," he said. "Food choices are better than they were before, but we still have a long way to go to get truly progressive, healthy foods manufactured and on store shelves."

Another panel on food trends discussed future trends and drivers. Emphasizing reports that 61 per cent of Americans were overweight, and that health-care costs can be expected to soar as a result, the panelists agreed that health concerns are a major driver in today's food trends and consumers increasingly are seeking efficacy in their foods.

Gerry Amantea from the Hain Celestial Group pointed out that as the baby boomers age, they are not going to accept living conditions like those today in which 65 per cent of elderly people who are hospitalized are found to be malnourished. "Taste and nutrition dominate but health is the driver," Amantea said. "Calcium and antioxidants hold the highest consumer belief in health benefits, along with omega-3s and fibre. Soy is one of the stars in the food arena — almost all major food companies are now in soy."

Dominic Dyer, from the UK Food and Drink Federation, echoed Amantea on soy, calling soy-based meat analogues "a huge opportunity."

Marion Nestle, one of the nation's foremost authorities on nutrition and food policy, concluded the conference with a keynote that included her signature criticism of food companies and supermarkets, the latter of which she says has a rule to sell as much sugar as possible, noting that supermarkets devote 25 per cent of shelf space to high-sugar products.

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