Kids Nutrition: Meeting The Dietary Needs of Children (and parents) in Modern Society


The market for positive nutritional solutions aimed at children has been an important growth trend within recent times, and will continue to expand as parents around the world become increasingly better educated on the nuances of their children’s nutritional needs and the options available to them to enhance their diets.
Modern society creates a fertile environment for lifestyles and consumption behaviors that are detrimental to healthy kids’ diets. Indeed, a common worry is that such diets are not satisfying basic nutritional requirements. However, parental concern is forcing the industry to be more responsive to the issue overall, increasing willingness to act and leading to a situation where marketers and producers are having to change their approaches to kids, to satisfy both the health aims and critical assessments of parents in their roles as gatekeepers, and retain the appeal among children themselves – often a difficult cohort to please.
A measure of the growth in importance of the topic of kids’ nutrition is the rapid rise in media discussion of the topic, as shown in figure 1:
Lack of exercise due to sedentary lifestyles is a major challenge for childhood (as well as adult) health. In the US, the National Household Travel Survey found a steep drop in the proportion of children who cycled or walked to school – in 1969, it found that 41% of children either walked or biked to school; this had fallen to only 13% by 2001. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55% from 20%. A similar trend for car-based school runs characterizes the UK – the NHS has calculated that around half of primary school children currently do not walk to school regularly, with 41% being driven to school in cars. This is despite the fact that the average distance to primary schools remains at just over one mile, an easily walk-able 20 minutes, it found.
Overall, the scale of the problem in Europe has been well documented, with Europa estimating that 22 million children are overweight across the EU, of which five million are obese. The fact that it is a growing problem in this region has been noted by consumers too, with a 2009 Eurobarometer survey showing three quarters of respondents “totally agreeing” that “there seem to be more overweight children these days than five years ago”. This is a fairly short timeframe, highlighting how many people are worried that childhood obesity is rising quickly over a short period.
Various studies have reported on the scale of the US obesity crisis too. According to rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health, Mississippi leads the way for obese children in the US, with 44.4% of Mississippi kids and teens aged between 10 and 17 being recorded as either overweight or obese. It found that the percentage of obese and overweight children is above 30% in 30 states, highlighting the widespread nature of the problem. Meanwhile, looking at US children who are obese and not just overweight, data analyzed from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health found that the rate of obesity for children aged 10 to 17 rose from 14.8% in 2003 to 16.4% in 2007, showing how the levels are growing at the extreme end of the overweight spectrum.
There are also cultural variations that complicate the issue around the world. For example, being overweight has traditionally been seen in China as a sign of success. Against this backdrop, the rise of the Little Emperor phenomenon, generations of only children born after the institution of the 1978 one-child policy for population control, has helped fuel significant growth in childhood obesity. The Little Emperors, although in reality only a minority of children due to widespread exemptions from the policy, have grown up in a setting of growing economic and social success with parents who have lavished attention upon them and responded to their every whim and need. This has provided fuel for rising obesity in the country: 44 million Chinese were obese in 2009 according to Datamonitor data, with a forecast rise to circa 78 million over the next five years.
Beyond the public health issues and the consumer demand, there is another powerful impetus to deliver more effectively in the area of positive kids’ nutrition. The food and beverage industry faces growing difficulty in delivering messages directly to kids due to advertising restrictions and an increasingly tense regulatory landscape. Thus, messages have to be aimed at the parent and must pass their critical assessment of suitability. Adopting a healthy orientation towards the provision of kids’ foods also emphasizes corporate responsibility, increasingly important as a measure of brand integrity and values.
This impetus to respond to consumer health concerns has engendered surprising alliances – in response to growing consumer concern over the health of children’s soft drinks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group ran print and TV ads in the US in 2010 announcing their joint initiative to remove full-calorie soft drinks from schools across the country, an unusual approach given their rivalry. All three are members of the American Beverage Association’s ‘Clear on Calories’ initiative, which since 2004 has aimed to place healthier tea, juices and water in school vending machines instead of full-calorie carbonates, along with displaying the amount of calories on the front of packs. Through such initiatives, the soft drinks industry aims to regulate itself on the issue of child obesity without the influence of the government, which so far has been successful. Clear on Calories has reportedly led to an 88% decrease in calories from beverages shipped to US schools in 2004.
Moving on to product solutions that answer kids’ (and parents’) needs, functional foods, consisting of products that are fortified with nutrients that aid mental or physical health beyond basic nutrition is one area that manufacturers have targeted as a growth area for product development. Functional foods for kids have traditionally focused on bone health, as calcium deficiency has been found to be high among a significant proportion of children. However, functional foods have moved on to target other areas relevant to kids, including cognitive health, energizing products and gut health. For example, so-called ‘brain food’ has been increasingly marketed as an aid to concentration and mental performance in kids – foods fortified with or rich in omega 3 and antioxidants.
Nevertheless, while such products focus on providing parents with what are perceived as in-demand health requirements, there are certain limitations to the functional food market, revolving around their perceived efficacy, and the length of time they take to work. With the exception of energizers, other functional foods may take a long time to have an effect on a persons’ health.
Despite this, Datamonitor’s 2009 consumer insight survey found that families that have children within the five to 13 year old age bracket are slightly more likely to purchase functional food and drinks than people on average. Globally, 43% of respondents with kids said they often bought these products, compared to 39% of overall respondents. 
Organic and natural foods within the kids’ context are a growing area of interest.
The 2009 US Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Study found that three quarters (73%) of US families have purchased organic products “only sometimes” or more often. The positive quality and health associations of products with natural or organic claims are well-established in the consumer psyche; obviously, this makes them appeal to parents as a positive nutritional move for their children’s diets. Two problems remain that could influence uptake however. One is economic: natural and particularly organic foods are generally more expensive. Not all consumers have accepted there to be significant tangible benefits from organic products compared to normal equivalents that justify price premiums. This has been exacerbated by the negative economic climate globally in recent years, hurting organic food sales in particular. The second is that children’s food preferences often make such “good for you” foods a hard sell – the old cliché of children not wanting their greens is still a common reality.
This has fed a growing market opportunity for the marriage of healthy attributes to products in traditionally less healthy categories, which are often those that kids exhibit a strong affinity for.
For example, the Solterra Foods (USA) Gluten-Free Happy Body Brownies Mix packaging literature states, “They’re great for picky kids who won’t eat their beans! They are high in fiber, protein and antioxidants. These fudgey brownies are made with healthy black beans, and are wheat- and dairy-free, and also vegan friendly!” Concepts like this are becoming increasingly common, e.g. fruit-based alternative chips instead of potato-based.
Snacks and confectionery that satisfy the stylistic and sensory cues that children go for, but are built around healthy ingredients and/or absence of the usual offenders (sugar, fat, etc.) that characterize them normally are a particularly useful route in enabling parents to maneuver their children’s diets in a positive direction, even when faced with resistance and a desire to retain their popular treats.
However, parents are in danger of being overwhelmed by the increasing number of health claims made about children’s food, with new nutritional advice frequently introduced. With many parents preferring to choose products with simple health messages on packaging, manufacturers should by wary of over-complicating their healthier kids’ foods. Food and beverage producers as well as marketers need to keep it simple: wholesome products (“fresh”, “balanced”) are preferred by parents over trendy nutritional ingredients (omega-3, B vitamin coline etc.).
Overall, the kids’ nutrition market has undoubtedly strong opportunities within it. However, responsible and credible responses are needed: consumer skepticism and aggressiveness to towards corporate motivations are powerful counter-forces. Parental protectiveness where children are concerned means that building trust is essential. Overcomplicating the market and products may also make parental choices more difficult and “miss the mood” among them.


oleh : Richard Parker
          Senior Analyst, 
          Consumer Insight (High Growth Markets), Datamonitor.
(FOODREVIEW INDONESIA Edisi Februari 2011)


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