by Anna Soref
Ten years ago, harried parents looking for a convenient organic and healthy snack to toss into their kids' lunchbox had about three choices: a granola bar, a granola bar with nuts or a granola bar with dried fruit. But hungry, finicky kids and their health-minded parents have managed to turn the tide on kids' snacks. Today, lunch boxes are toting organic dried-fruit roll-ups, vegan "cheese" crackers shaped like electric cars and planet Earths, and packs of edamame adorned with Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob Square Pants.
So let's just say it's official: Naturals manufacturers "get" the kids' snack market.
Most naturals retailers already know what's not so good about conventional kids' snacks— high sodium levels, trans fats, corn syrup and artificial colors, to name a few. In response to governmental and parental pressure, many conventional kids'-snack makers have cleaned up their products, making them healthier. Or so they say.
"Take [conventional] graham crackers— they may say ‘made with whole grains,' but it's only a scant amount," says Kimberly Lord Stewart, author of Eating Between the Lines (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007) and editor of The Natural Foods Merchandiser's sister publication Functional Ingredients. "Worse yet, they're using hydrogenated fats. They can say ‘no trans fats' because the [Food and Drug Administration] has a loophole that if you have less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, you can label the product ‘no trans fats.'"
But naturals manufacturers are rolling out snacks that are truly healthy options, and are getting the kid-marketing angle down as well.
For Dr. William Sears, a Capistrano, Calif.-based pediatrician and author, snacks are a key to children's health. "With the current epidemic of nutrition-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity, I realized the importance of kids' snacks," he says. "Children are born grazers; we try to force them to gorge on three big meals a day but it's healthier to snack— as long as it's not on garbage."
So what makes a child's snack healthy? Sears says to look for the following:
Satiety factor. Choose snacks with both fiber and protein, which give the feeling of fullness.
Omega-3s. Children are most deficient in this nutrient.
Taste. If it doesn't taste good, kids won't eat it.
Missing ingredients. Avoid hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.
Strive for five. Look for 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Organic. Children (and older adults) have more fragile immune systems that can be weakened by added chemicals.
Sears considered these factors when developing his line of kids' snacks, Lunchbox Essentials, that debuted in May. The line's initial offering is Popumz— sweet and savory multigrain snacks. In addition to approaching or meeting the guidelines listed above, Popumz are designed to give a good mouth feel so that kids want to keep them in their mouths longer. "This helps prevent overeating, and when you chew longer you secrete more saliva so you digest the food better. This gives kids a comfortable gut feeling," Sears says.
For mother-and-daughter team Mary Schulman and Janet Owings, launching Snikiddy Snacks was not just about putting a healthier snack on store shelves but also promoting a healthier lifestyle, Schulman says. For example, the five-serving, resealable Sharing pack of the company's variety of puffs is designed to promote just that— sharing. "We try and put subliminal messages everywhere," Schulman says. Another hint— many of the cartoon kids on the packages are in motion— jumping or walking.
Boulder, Colo.-based Snikiddy Snacks products have been on the market for about a year and a half. It didn't take long for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified-organic sweet and savory puffs to take off, Schulman says. "They're based on my grandmother's recipes and taste great. But they're 60 percent less sugar than other brands; many flavors only have 2 grams of sugar per serving."
Licensed characters are also starting to appear more in the naturals market. Although Sponge Bob and edamame might not seem like a likely match, they're a great pair, according to Laura Cross, president of Seapoint Farms edamame. Last year, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company introduced individual pouches of shelled edamame embellished with the cartoon characters Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer.
"The folks at Viacom/Nickelodeon [which broadcast the Sponge Bob and Dora TV shows] actually contacted Seapoint Farms. They were big fans of our products and wanted to do some healthy snack options, and so it all began to come together," Cross says. "We had wanted to do a kids' product for awhile, and this was a perfect vehicle for us to do just that.
"It's all about negotiating a licensing agreement that works for everyone. We were both very willing to do whatever it took to make it work," Cross says. "The response has been terrific; we are happy with the way the products are being received by consumers, and Nickelodeon is quite happy as well."
Parents desperate for an alternative to Snickers have been giving their kids adult energy bars for some time, but often they're too dense and the serving size is too big for a small child. Now, companies like Larabar and Clif Bar are launching kids' lines.
"We were worried about the lack of organic and healthy options for our own kids," says Karen Jobb, director of CLIF Kid, based in Berkeley, Calif. So the Clif team developed products like ZBar, an organic whole-grain energy bar for children that has 3 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein to help kids avoid energy highs and lows, Jobb says. The company's Twisted Fruit, which looks like a licorice stick, is equivalent to one serving of 100 percent organic fruit.
And unlike much of their mass-market counterparts, the Clif Kids' snacks are nutritious, organic and don't contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, trans fats, genetically modified organisms or high-fructose corn syrup, according to Jobb.
While goldfish and teddy bears are the quintessential snack-cracker shapes in mass grocery, naturals manufacturers are giving kids' lines their own twist. Eco-Planet's crackers and cookies are shaped like electric cars, Earths, windmills and happy suns. The Chicago-based company launched its kids' line with a bang at Natural Products Expo West in March 2007, where it was awarded the best new product in the vegan category for its "cheese" crackers.
The company is finding a niche with kids, and adults, who can't eat dairy with its unique organic formula that gives the vegan crackers aw cheesy taste, says President James Sego. "We get tons and tons of people [allergic to dairy] who thought they'd have to give up Cheez-Its forever but can now eat our product."
Like many naturals manufacturers, Eco-Planet is environmentally conscious. "We use 100 percent wind power to produce the product, and it's organic and GMO-free. The packaging is 100 percent recycled paperboard with soy inks," Sego says.
Retailers might be wondering if there's enough room for all of these new children's snacks. Debbie Reynolds, co-owner of Auburn, Calif.-based Healthy Handfuls, a line of kids' snacks that have been on the market for about four years, thinks so. "Competition can work both ways. You can lose some customers, but it also drives people to the category when they see more of it," she says.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p. 46