Child Nutrition, from Supplements to School Lunch

October 10, 2012

Like the new school lunch, children’s dietary supplements can help fill nutrient gaps.

Like the new school lunch, children’s dietary supplements can help fill nutrient gaps.

Here’s a shameful confession: when I was a child, I used to throw away my vitamins. Every night, my mom judiciously handed out fruit-flavored chewables; and every night, my sister and I, not liking their taste, met in the bathroom and flushed them down the toilet.

Looking back, of course, I wish I had taken those vitamins. Who knows how much healthier I might be today if I had? Kids always veer toward the tastiest choice, even if it’s not the smartest one. This tendency makes raising a healthy kid in today’s fat-, salt-, and sugar-laden food world-where unhealthy options are just a vending machine or a fast-food joint away-especially challenging. It’s really no wonder that the childhood obesity rate has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC.

Programs to address the growing problem of childhood obesity, and improve childhood nutrition, are still in their infancy. One of the most prominent is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012, which is the effort of First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA to raise the nutrition profile of school lunches nationwide. As a result of the Act, many schools just now back in session are getting their first taste of the new school lunch. Improvements include more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and reduced salt and trans fat.

Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy to see the new school lunch. Some criticize the lunch for not being filling enough, for tasting bad, and for being “wasteful,” stating that kids will just throw away the fruits and veggies without eating them. Clearly, though, the ways we have been feeding our children are not working. I’d argue that the time to try new interventions, any interventions, is now.

Naturally, students will need time to get used to the new, healthier menu, said National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Allison Aubrey on NPR’s October 2 “Tell Me More” program. “When it comes to our kids actually eating [the new school lunch], I think in the beginning we can expect that kids are going to throw things away, because we all take time to adapt to change,” she said. But, she added, in many schools participation in the school lunch program has actually gone up.

Yes, it will take time for kids to get used to-and like-the taste of fruits and veggies, especially those to whom fruits and veggies are foreign. At the same time, schools have a responsibility to keep improving meals so that meals are both healthy and tasty-so that kids will want to eat them.

If it works, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will help close, at least in part, nutrient gaps in the diets of the nearly 32 million kids who eat school lunch meals. Given the unhealthy diets of many adults and, as a result, their families, school lunch may now become the healthiest meal these children eat during the day. Conversely, for parents who do try to feed their children healthily, a meal that reinforces efforts outside the home can only help.

Besides school lunch, dietary supplements can also help to fill nutrition gaps. Here, marketers are also finding creative, more palatable ways to deliver a supplement that kids might actually want to take. Even omega-3 fishy flavors may be no obstacle, and not when in a fun, fish-shaped “jellie” supplement like those from Nordic Naturals (see page 110). Just like with school lunches, getting children to commit to a healthier regimen requires making those supplements easier to swallow, so to speak.

But it’s also possible to make a supplement too delicious-something I realized reading our cover story about challenges in determining the appropriate form and dosage of a children’s supplement, written by Amy Clewell, ND, and Tennille Marx of AIBMR Life Sciences Inc. Our cover model, little Elijah Schneggenburger, is a good example; he kept trying to gobble up more gummy vitamins during his photo shoot. It’s crucial that supplement companies do their best to find the right balance.

Raising kids is tough, and raising healthy kids is tougher. Hats off to all of us who try, including my mom.