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Shaping Up Kids SnacksShaping Up Kids Snacks

December 21, 2007

14 Min Read
Shaping Up Kids Snacks

School-time snacking just isnt what it used to be. Maybe nostalgia colors my memories, but I seem to recall Friday pizza parties, buttered popcorn during filmstrips and Tupperware full of birthday cupcakes. Now, with school districts banning junk food nationwide, even an unassuming bag of jelly beans could be a target for interdiction.

For todays American child, obesity is an ever-present threat. The grim statistics bear repeating: The 2003 to 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimates the number of overweight children under age 5 at about 14%, and the number between ages 6 and 11 at almost 19% and climbing. These rising rates, described variously as epidemic, alarming and catastrophic, pose costs to society, the economy and the future so worrisome that childhood obesity has become a lightning rod for everyone from consumer advocates to federal officials.

A sweet reaction

That leaves our industry pondering our responsibility in averting this nutritional train wreck. Companiesincluding big names like McDonalds, Kraft, Coca-Cola and many morehave voluntarily limited kids advertising. The popularity of 100-calorie packs is growing.

Manufacturers are shaping up kids snacks by cutting fat and sugar. The USDA Food Guide recommends 4- to 18-year-old girls and boys get no more than 16 to 48 and 16 to 96 grams of added sugars per day, respectively. However, the average 12- to 17-year-old girl consumes 96 grams of added sugar, while her male counterpart takes in about 140 grams, according to a study in the Jan. 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

No sugar-reduction effort can succeed without a restoration of sugars sweetness as well as its functionality. As we look at keeping those hedonic scores high so people will come back and keep buying the product, we also look at the total formulation of each application to determine what functionality sugar brings, says Lori Napier, manager, new technology development, Tate & Lyle Americas, Decatur, IL. For example, in bakery, sugar is extremely functional, not just to bulk the product and offer sweetness, but to give you tenderness and bite, the right cookie spread and so-forth. If youre totally removing sugar, it poses some challenges.

Napier suggests replacing sugars taste with high-intensity alternatives like sucralose. Meanwhile, fill in the functionality and add healthful fiberwith soluble corn fiber. This ingredient functions like corn syrup, but the body treats it like a low-glycemic, prebiotic soluble fiber that contributes 2 kcal per gram. So, she says, in a granola or cereal bar, we could replace 100% of the standard sugar or corn-syrup binder with soluble corn fiber for functionality, while restoring sweetness with sucralose. That way, she notes, youre adding fiber and reducing calories, while maintaining texture and flavor profile.

Kinder, gentler carbs

Completely eliminating sugar may not even be necessary. The right solution, says Dave Tuchler, vice president, brands, Tate & Lyle, is not simply a matter of how much sugar you take out. Its a balance incorporating a meaningful sugar reduction while retaining great product taste and performance, so that kids will continue to want the product. Moms understand this. We know from market research that moms will look at products with 25% reduced sugar as perfectly acceptable, healthier alternatives.

Many parents approve of sweet snacks made with honey, notes Jami Yanoski, marketing manager, National Honey Board, Firestone, CO. Moms dont monitor honey consumption like they would, say, a candy bar, because they know honey is natural, she says. Honey is roughly 30% sweeter than sugar, so you can consume less for the same sweetening power, and therefore consume fewer calories at the same time.

Calories may not be as important as a sweeteners metabolic effect. Part of what you need to look at with sweeteners is how quickly the energy from the sweetener is delivered, says Anne Mollerus, product line manager, Cargill Health &Nutrition, Minneapolis. If you look at many nutritive sweeteners on the market today, theyre fast-energy carbohydrates. Theyre broken down quickly in the body. Theyre absorbed faster into the bloodstream and into the muscle. So you get the blood glucose peaks, and then the drops.

Replacing high-glycemic carbs with slower-releasing alternatives could yield a whole new set of nutritional dividends. With slowly digestible carbohydrates, Mollerus says, youre essentially balancing out that spike and that valley. The same amount of glucose is delivered over a longer amount of time.

Isomaltulose and sucromalt are two low-glycemic formulation options, Mollerus says. While not sugar substitutes per sethey deliver the same 4 kcal per gram as sugar, corn syrup and other nutritive sweetenersthey release their energy at a more-measured pace, thanks to their chemical structures.

For example, isomaltulose starts as sucrose, which through the enzymatic rearrangement of its glucose-fructose bonds, takes longer for your intestinal enzymes to break down, Mollerus says. Sucromalt is actually derived from sucrose and maltose. What we do there is use an enzyme to cleave the sucrose into its component fructose and glucose parts. Then we use the maltose as a kind of foundation disaccharide to which we attach the glucose from the sucrose with alpha-1,3 and alpha-1,6 bonds.

Those unique linkages slow digestion, and the remaining fructose units give sucromalt about 70% the sweetness of sugar. Isomaltulose exhibits about half of sugars sweetness. They need high-intensity help to replace a formulations fast-energy sugars without diminishing its sweet taste. Mollerus has successfully used polyols and high-intensity sweeteners to this end, and adds that you can look at bumping up sweetness with, say, flavors. You could consider using a sweeter flavormaybe a fruit flavor, or chocolate, for instance.

Several such sweeteners have the advantage of noncariogenicity. In fact, FDA allows a does not promote tooth decay health claim in products containing erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, sorbitol or xylitol, alone or in combination.

Flavors are real team players in maintaining the sensory appeal of reduced-sugar snacks. The benefit of working with flavors is that they dont add any calories or sugar, says Adam Schreier, corporate chef, Mastertaste, Teterboro, NJ, and can even cover up certain negative notes that children dont like. Thus, flavor suppliers have developed a number of flavor-modification technologies to allow manufacturers to reduce sugar levels.

Lowering sugar levels successfully is still a complex flavor challenge, says Markus Eckert, vice president, technical flavors, Mastertaste. When adding sugar substitutes to a product, it will change the mouthfeel of the product. If you take out the sweeteners using our flavor modulation technology, you may have to use more flavor to rebalance the product.

Please de-grease me

Reduced-fat applications need similar tweaks. A fats function in a product is very similar to a sugars, Eckert says. Fats give products a specific mouthfeel and texture, and if you reduce the amount of fat in a product, you will alter the end product, perhaps more than intended. Food processors must work closely with flavor houses to examine what changes may occur in a product, and work to address these flavor challenges to deliver the perception of a full-fat product.

Notes Lynne Morehart, technical services manager, Cargill Dressings, Sauces & Oils, Minneapolis: The toughest applications to reduce total fat and still have a taste and eating quality that is acceptable to consumers are fried snacks.

Many kids snacks are traditionally fried. Some manufacturers have turned to baking such snacks, but this, too, has its drawbacks. Aside from the loss of richness and flavor, removing the frying step from typically fried snacks may require the investment in baking equipment in facilities where they are not currently present, she says. Additionally, many topical seasonings cling to a snacks surface via residual frying fat. So, if the snack is baked, she notes, you may need a thin, sprayed layer of fat on the surface to allow these seasonings to adhere.

Its also diffi cult to remove trans fats from snacks with frostings and whipped fillings, notes Morehart. These require solid fats functionality, so formulators may end up trading trans content for high saturates. Fortunately, new functional blends match the advantages of high-saturate fats with liquid oils. However, it can be difficult to reach the balance between solid and liquid fat sources while still reaching the overall nutritional goal that is needed, she says. The answer may be a system of ingredients that can mimic some of fats function while incorporating an overall healthier fat option, noting that the solution will depend on the finished product.

Scarcity amid plenty

Adequate nutrient intake is essential for good health throughout life, notes Ram Chaudhari, Ph.D., FACN, CNS, senior executive vice president, chief scientific officer, Fortitech, Inc., Schenectady, NY. But, during childhood, he says, the focus of nutrition is to provide adequate nutrients to meet requirements for growth and activity.

Take childrens bones. To reduce the risk of osteoporosis, says Chaudhari, it is necessary to achieve peak bone mineral density, which occurs early in adult life, around age 20. Yet, he notes, achieving optimal bone mineral density as an adult requires significant intakes of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium for bone structure, and vitamins C, D and K for bone metabolism during a critical window of opportunity in childhood and adolescence.

Despite milks widespread fortification with vitamin D, notes Ann Marie Krautheim, RD, senior vice president, nutrition affairs, Dairy Management Inc. and National Dairy Council, Rosemont, IL. we are seeing a resurgence of rickets in the United States. Thats something that food manufacturers, and particularly dairy manufacturers, should be thinking about.

Ironically, kids erratic eating may put them at increased risk for deficiencies of the nutrients they need most. It is known that kids tend to eat less fish, Chaudhari says. Because fish is a rich source of important omega- 3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, shortfalls in the intake of these important dietary fatty-acid components needed for proper brain development and anti-inflammatory activity may develop in children. Studies also show that children ages 2 to 6 get only about 1.5 servings of vegetables per dayroughly half the recommendationwhile older kids only take in about 2.5 of their recommended 3 to 5 servings.

The result, he continues, is that many children in the United States consume diets that contain inadequate amounts of many micronutrients and limit their intake of important phytonutrients. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans targets five nutrients of concern for increased consumption among children: calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamin E. While we could beg Junior to eat more vegetable and whole-grain sources of these nutrients, as many parents know from firsthand experience, this approach too often meets with limited success, particularly given the usual strong food preferences and individual finicky food habits of some children, Chaudhari says.

Rather, as Krautheim puts it, the key is to pack as many nutrients into the calories that kids are eating.

Mother Natures cupboard

Weve already succeeded at widespread fortification in breads, breakfast cereals and milk. But 21st-century parents see nutritional optimization a bit differently. I think that when todays parents are looking for foods overall, they are placing emphasis and preference on those foods that naturally contain nutrients and are not just the Super Donuta vitamin pill hidden in a food, Krautheim says. We need to make those foods that are inherently rich in nutrientssuch as milk, cheese and yogurtmore available, more accessible and more appealing to the consumer.

Marilyn Swanson, Ph.D., national program leader, maternal and child health, USDA/ARS Childrens Nutrition Research Center (CNRC), Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, is eager to see the incorporation of what one might call more-healthful ingredients into prepared foodssuch things as nuts or dried cranberries, or even commercially prepared brownies that are made with prune purée. Shes impressed with some of the sweet-potato chips on the market, which are a great source of vitamin A, and applauds some of the soybean snacks that are like potato chips, but oven-baked. I think its a real positive step in the right direction.

Swanson would also like us to reposition fresh fruits and vegetables as more snackable, she says, or find ways that we can keep carrot sticks fresh and tasty and kid-friendly. Dole Food Company, Thousand Oaks, CA, has been working internally and with schools for years to do just that. School is probably the place where some students are getting their healthiest meals, says Stewart McAllister, director of foodservice marketing, Dole. School is a beachhead. Its a place where you can educate.

That emphasis on education at schools bleeds over from the lunch hour into the curriculum. I notice it anecdotally with my own kids, that they come home and make comments about the food were buying for the house, McAllister says. Theyll look at the nutrition label. They know how to read that, and what RDA means.

The take-home lesson for parents and product developers is childrens assumed predilection for sweets and sodas isnt a foregone conclusion. If you get kids going on juice, fruit and veggies on a regular basis at an early age, he says, they will crave these foods.

The trick is to present fruitor any healthful snackin a form that speaks to kids tastes. Fruit, above all, has to look fresh and colorful and appetizing, McAllister says. It helps to make the snack easy and fun, too. When a kid sees a whole apple or a whole orange, they dont want to go through all the labor, he says. Theyd rather have it cut up. That realization helped inspire the companys fruit bowls, which portion a single cut-up serving of fruit into convenient, portable bowls. Theyre shelf stable, so you dont have to worry about refrigeration or bruising, or the waste or the mess of peeling fresh fruit, he notes, And that appeals to kids. Pasteurized in a low-temperature water bath to ensure gentle processing, and packed in a light, preservative- free syrup, the product makes the fruit the star.

Its also about working with school foodservice programs to get them to make fruits and vegetables a little more interactive giving them ideas of how to add value, where you might have cut-up vegetables or fruit available with a cup of dip that the students can pick up at lunch or breakfast, says Donna Skidmore, director of consumer services, Dole. Interactivity is a key determinant in giving snacks kid appeal. In its 2006 FUNdamentals survey, Just Kid, Inc., Stamford, CT, found that children between ages 2 and 12 like to dip, scoop and add edible accessories to their foods.

Even if they are given a simple yogurt product, they want to add sprinkles, toppings or sauces, says Eckert. In addition, most children prefer their products to include fillings and frosting, and have fun shapes and bright colors.

Following this, Mastertaste developed healthful, kid-friendly chocolate, marshmallow and banana yogurt formulations to pair with dried banana-chip dippers. In all of our dipping formulations, Schreier says, we were sure to use dried fruit and graham crackers, rather than chips or cookies. Another dipping formulation weve created is a cinnamon-caramel yogurt that could use either dried apple chips or fresh apple slices as dippers. On the savory side, we used the yogurt base when formulating our Funky Frog ranch spread using soy cheese and ranch seasoning. And we created something called Crazy Coyote Cheddar-nacho dip using a soy cheese and Mastertastes Cheddar-nacho flavor, and served it with whole-wheat tortilla and pita chips.

Yes, kids will eat soy cheese, even during snack time. In fact, their tastes are a lot more adventuresome than we think.

Sweet has its fans, but kids also lean toward extreme profiles. While traditional flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana dominate products such as milk and drinkable yogurts, Eckert says, products like juices are seeing innovative combinations like black currant and pineapple, with traditional standards like apple and orange. Varietal names are also catching on: It isnt just orange; its blood orange, he notes. It isnt just lime, its key lime.

While kids willingness to branch out depends largely on the product under consideration, the influence of their parents has significant sway, as well. Its natural for children to want to emulate their parents, Eckert says, and with the evolving flavor palate of the traditional American consumer, todays children are being subjected to a much wider variety of flavors than their parents are.

Mom and Dad still exert some influence, especially when nutritious snacking is the goal. It is imperative that the product not only appeal to the child, but also meet the nutritional standards of the parents, says Eckert. Food and beverage processors must keep in mind that its the parents where initially buy the product. All the same, the kid often is king. If their children dont like the flavor, he admits, the parent will not buy the product again.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected]

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