The intersection of children’s health and proper nutrition brings a whole new meaning to the Whitney Houston lyrics “I believe the children are our future.” Since 1985—when Houston originally released the song “Greatest Love of All”—the brands, ingredient suppliers and focus surrounding children’s health and nutrition have remained relatively the same. Children offer similar challenges compared to adults for formulators and brands--the biggest difference being that children’s needs are often magnified.
For example, if a formulator is working with an ingredient that has an unpleasant taste, then the flavor masking employed would need to be even stronger for a child than an adult. The same goes for color. A child might want a brighter, more vibrant color for a beverage compared to an adult. Adults normally have a greater tolerance for the taste and look of a product, if they understand it’s imparting a benefit to them. Children generally do not have that same understanding and need to be coaxed in other ways.
“Visual appeal is particularly important when targeting children, so ensuring products look attractive and vibrant and are true to flavor is key to any coloration strategy,” said Christiane Lippert, head of marketing, Lycored SARL. “Categories such as confectionery—hard-coated candies and gummies—have very harsh processing conditions and require colors that can withstand this.”
Of course, the need for natural food colorings for children has never been higher. In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned FDA to ban artificial food dyes citing some alarming studies. One such study found that children with a predisposition to hyperactivity could possibly be triggered by artificial food coloring.1 The effects of the findings and many others like it drove FDA to conduct a study into the six most popular FDA-approved food colorings. The study found a possible link to the consumption of some artificial dyes and increased hyperactivity and prompted further study by FDA.2
The most popular forms of natural food colorings are carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin and turmeric. Over time, formulators have started to hone natural food colorings’ ability to withstand the manufacturing processes and the effects of time. It’s hard not to imagine natural food colorings standing toe-to-toe with artificial colorings soon.
The challenge of taste has always been a tough one for formulators and brands. Children tend to be less tolerant of bitter or sour tastes. Why is that? The average infant has roughly 30,000 taste buds. Around the age of adulthood only one-third of those same taste buds are present. This could be one possible explanation as to why taste changes over time. Because of children’s heightened sense of taste, formulators and brands face a stingier consumer.
“Kids are not as open with texture as adults—if something is too grainy or gritty, rather than smooth and creamy, they are less likely to eat it,” explained Leigh Keith, co-founder and president, Perfect Snacks—an organic snack food company that specializes in refrigerated protein bars. “Additionally, kids have simpler palettes than adults. We’ve had years to refine our palettes and taste different flavors, but children don’t need snacks with overt flavor profiles, sweetness or saltiness. We like to keep it simple and straight forward.”
Flavor profiles for products geared toward children don’t necessarily need to be complex to be a hit. Research has shown that sweet preference is innate in children and that averseness to bitterness starts at an early age.3 Their unwillingness to eat bitter foods ultimately may stem from a biological impulse to not consume anything potentially poisonous. For formulators, herbal ingredients like curcumin (turmeric) and ginseng tend to have a strong bitter flavor that is difficult to mask. Extra care would need to be taken to ensure herbal ingredients with strong flavors are adequately masked for children.
However, there are other factors that influence a child’s food preference.
“The sense of taste and preferences for certain foods are the result of a multitude of factors,” explained Nena Dockery, technical services manager, Stratum Nutrition. “Breastfed babies often have some exposure to the taste of foods that the mother consumes, and this can help determine some preferences. Even in utero, there is some limited exposure through amniotic fluid.” Studies have shown newborns have an intrinsic need to consume sweet foods, so they know their mother’s milk is safe to drink.4
In a 1985 report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), supplements were considered a key component to ensuring proper nutrition for children around the world.
“Supplementing diets with specific micronutrients can also be a highly cost-effective way of protecting children’s lives and growth,” the report read.5 Fast forward 34 years, and supplements are a key part of everyday life. Children, especially, with their unwillingness to eat vegetables and other non-sweet-tasting foods that provide essential nutrients for development and growth lean heavily on supplements. The real challenge comes with finding a delivery format that children can get behind.
“Young children should not take hard pill forms, such as large tablets and capsules,” Dockery said. “Stick packs and liquids, if flavored well, are usually the best choices. For older children, chewable tablets and gummies might be appropriate. Since most children’s products are chewed and not swallowed whole, it can be a formulating challenge to find flavorings that both appeal to children and mask the presence of ingredients with strong or unpleasant flavors.”
Stratum Nutrition chose the route of an Altoid-type mint for their BLIS K12™ probiotic. It found children reacted well to a mint-flavored chewable for its oral probiotic. The BLIS K12™ strain was originally discovered as scientists examined the oral activity of a child with exceptional throat health for several years. Scientists then isolated the specific strain S. salivarius and conducted studies that showed it had the ability to reduce instances of strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis) in children with a history of getting the infection by about 90 percent.6 Stratum Nutrition has had success in formulating its probiotic for chewables, lozenges, stick packs, chewing gum, lollipops, ice cream and popsicles.
Even with effective supplement delivery forms, it ultimately comes down to education with children. Remembering children’s needs are magnified compared to adults can make educating them a different experience.
“I love planting seeds in children’s minds that taking supplements is a great experience,” explained DavidPaul Doyle, founder and CEO, NatureWise. “Food is number one, but supplements can go where food cannot. If you can make it an adventure, an experiment, something special that no other thing can accomplish, then you can create the type of framework and belief system that children can get behind. Giving them a positive attitude from the get-go has the potential to make a long-term health impact in their lives.”
Listening to Parents
Every parent wants their child to be happy and healthy. That’ll never change. But what has changed in recent years is just how engaged parents have become in ensuring foods and ingredients for their children have been responsibly sourced and handled. White Leaf Provisions—an organic baby food company—started with Meghan and Keith Rowe browsing grocery shelves in search of pure food options for their newborn son, Keegan. Not seeing anything that checked all their boxes, they decided they could do it better. Fast forward three years, and Meghan and Keith are helping other parents that are looking for the same organic, responsibly-sourced foods that they did.
“When we started White Leaf Provisions, we were curious parents looking for convenient, delicious, pure blends that offered complete transparency, which included the farming practices behind the products,” Meghan explained. “We found that a lot of the other baby snack options available fell a little short, so we built our business to bring to market a line of products that offered complete transparency from the seed to the final product with a strong focus on regenerative farming. We need to start asking more questions of the brands that are manufacturing our foods and what steps these brands are taking to secure the health of the planet our kids will inherit.”
Meghan and Keith aren’t the only parents looking for transparency in the grocery aisle. In a 2018 study conducted by the Food Marketing Institute, 75 percent of shoppers surveyed said they were more likely to switch to a brand that provided more in-depth product information beyond what’s provided on the nutritional and physical labels.7 The Food Marketing Institute conducted the same survey in 2016 and found only 39 percent said they would switch. With the need for transparency steadily increasing, brands and formulators alike will need to be upfront about their sourcing, processing and dedication to the consumer.
Looking for more information on children’s nutrition?
Marked by rapid growth and development milestones, the first five years of a child’s life are particularly formative. Read the “Nutrition for the First Five Years” digital magazine for a run down on what infants and toddlers need.
- McCann D et al. “Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Lancet. 2007;370(9598):1560-7.
- Carol P et al. “DIET AND NUTRITION: The Artificial Food Dye Blues.” Environmental Health Perspective. 2010;118(10): A428.
- Mennella J et al. “The sweetness and bitterness of childhood: Insights from basic research on taste preferences.” Physiological Behavior. 2015;152(0): 502-507.
- Lawless H et al. “Sensory development in children: research in taste and olfaction.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1985;85(5): 577-82.
- Grant JP et al. “The State of the World’s Children.” Indian Journal of Pediatrics. 1985;52(414):3-10.
- Di Pierro F et al. “Preliminary pediatric clinical evaluation of the oral probiotic Streptococcus salivarius K12 in preventing recurrent pharyngitis and/or tonsillitis caused by Streptococcus pyogenes and recurrent acute otitis media.” International Journal of General Medicine. 2012;5(0): 991-997.
- “The Transparency Initiative: Product Labeling from the Consumer Perspective.” Food Marketing Institute. 2018.