Formulating children’s supplements requires balancing the tried-and-true and innovation.
In the children’s health market, sales are thriving. Last year, Nutrition Business Journal’s 2022 Condition Specific Report predicted that by 2025, the children’s health market will be 48.2% larger than it was in 2019.1
The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated interest in products to keep children healthy. For instance, “With COVID and now what we consider post-COVID, it became a priority for parents to shore up their children’s immune health, giving rise to supplements touting vitamin D for its immune-support benefit,” says Stacey Smith, DC, marketing and communications manager, NORAM, at Gnosis by Lesaffre (Lille, France; East Brunswick, NJ).
Supplements comprise a huge part of the children’s health market. Up to one-third of children and adolescents in the U.S. today take dietary supplements, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2 With so many shoppers buying supplements for their kids, and with so many companies selling supplements for kids, competition in the children’s supplement market is fierce.
So how can brands stand out?
Play It Safe
First, by playing it safe. And while playing it safe might not be a marketer’s first instinct, in the children’s health market, it is the perfect move.
“Children’s health is one category where formulators want to play it safe, and that’s okay,” Smith says. “Parents are looking for proven ingredients that will truly benefit their children’s health. They are more than willing to try something trendy for themselves while sticking with the tried-and-true for their kids.”
Drilling down deeper, the supplements end of the children’s health market might actually be more adventurous than the children’s food segment, says Timo Faber, global marketing lead, early life nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients (Amersfoort, Netherlands).
“The children’s health market, targeting three- to twelve-year-olds, has been less innovative historically than the adult health and infant nutrition markets. But the picture is not a uniform one. We see more innovation in supplements, where new products, containing more diverse ingredients, are launched relatively frequently,” he observes. “In contrast, fortified, everyday children’s foods like yogurts have not experienced the same degree of innovation.”
And, he says, “In both categories, vitamins and minerals are considered dependable choices for formulators and marketers because they are familiar to consumers, who understand their benefits. As a result, it is tempting to stick with tried-and-tested ingredients in traditional formats to maintain sales volumes.”
Tried-and-true doesn’t mean children’s supplements can’t improve. Indeed, researchers continue to study some of the best-known nutrients for kids, yielding more and better data on whether and how these ingredients actually benefit a child’s health. Branded ingredients backed by clinical research are especially valuable to parents looking for evidence of safety and efficacy before giving a product to their children.
“One of the strongest callouts for packaging and marketing a child supplement is the use of clinically proven ingredients,” says Smith. “Parents will invest in the highest-quality supplement for their children, ensuring that they are giving their children something that is safe and will truly support their health. They want to put their trust in brands that they can be sure are investing to provide the best for their children.”
Faber agrees, adding that “compelling health claims that highlight the specific benefits, whether for the supplement as a whole or its individual ingredients, can instill interest and confidence in parents.” His advice? “Clear, evidence-based claims can differentiate supplements in a crowded market.”
Vitamin K2 as MK-7 is one of those proven ingredients, says Smith. Gnosis by Lesaffre’s MenaQ7 vitamin K2 MK-7 ingredient is extensively studied, and in children, to boot. “MenaQ7 is the only vitamin K2 as MK-7 studied in children and shown to deliver bone-supporting benefits,” she says. This includes a 2009 study in healthy children aged 6-10 which demonstrated that 45 mcg of MenaQ7 daily resulted in more active osteocalcin in children, which leads to stronger, denser bones.3 Another study in children and teens published in 2013 showed that a combination of 50 mcg of MenaQ7 and 5 mcg of calcitriol vitamin D daily resulted in improved bone mineral density.4
As more adults learn about nutrition and supplements as a whole, companies can take the opportunity to educate them about what makes lesser-known ingredients so promising for children’s health. “Consumer understanding of more specialized nutritional ingredients is increasingly quickly, so there’s a real opportunity to leverage these in the future,” Faber says.
What leads a parent to shop for a kids’ supplement in the first place? Their chief concerns often include brain development, immune support, eye health, and cognitive function, says Toni Farinella, segment lead, early life nutrition, Dsm-Firmenich (Kaiseraugst, Switzerland).
“Supplements can play a significant role in multiple aspects of a child’s development, including digestive health, promoting a healthy immune system, and supporting normal growth and development,” agrees Faber. “They can also aid cognitive development and nurture mental health. Additionally, supplements can contribute to dental, bone, and eye health, and much more.”
Eye health is a growing focus given high rates of exposure to digital screens. “Given increased screen time, parents are more concerned about children’s eye health,” says Kristen Finn, lead scientist, early life nutrition, Dsm-Firmenich.
Some of the best-studied ingredients for eye health include carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Meanwhile, omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which come from fish or algae sources, are being studied for children’s brain development, Finn says.
Omega-3s’ benefits can be further enhanced by combining these fatty acids with vitamin K2 MK-7, Smith at Gnosis by Lesaffre adds. This provides numerous health benefits at once, including support for brain and vision, heart, and bones. She points to two published clinical trials showing that the company’s own MenaQ7 successfully combined with omega-3s and other popular children’s nutrients, including vitamins D3 and C.5,6
She further explains the synergies between vitamin K2 and vitamin D. “Vitamin K2 as MK-7 helps the body to properly utilize calcium by activating K-dependent proteins already present in the body. Osteocalcin, once activated by K2, binds calcium to the bone mineral matrix, and Matrix Gla protein, once activated by K2, inhibits calcium from depositing in arteries and soft tissues. Vitamin D3 helps to not only synthesize those K-dependent proteins but also helps the body to properly absorb calcium.”
Digestive health is one of the leading segments of the adult supplements market these days, and it’s also a growing priority in the children’s health market. The desire to optimize microbiome health from birth and to support gut health throughout childhood creates many opportunities for the supplements industry. We’ve already seen children’s probiotic supplements capitalize on this interest.
One of the highest-profile ingredients in the early-nutrition market today is human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs. HMOs are complex, non-digestible carbohydrates that make up a large part of human breast milk. As infant-formula and early-nutrition marketers seek to provide products closer to the nutritional status of breast milk, HMOs have risen to the forefront as a next-generation ingredient for children’s health products. Dsm-Firmenich’s Finn says that HMOs “have become commercially available in recent years and show promising gut health benefits for children and adults.”
At FrieslandCampina, Faber says that innovative ingredients like lactoferrin and the HMO ingredient 2’-fucosyllactose (2’-FL) “should receive more attention, as studies show they can contribute significantly to areas of health that are important to parents and children. Combining these ingredients with essential minerals can create highly beneficial nutritional products.”
Also in the digestive space, he says, “Another promising avenue is the combination of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics, which can support gut health and many other aspects of health and well-being.”
For Child and Parent
An obvious rule of thumb when developing children’s supplements is to keep both children and parents in mind. Formulators must ensure that products will appeal to children, especially picky eaters, Dsm-Firmenich’s Finn advises.
After all, Smith at Gnosis by Lesaffre points out, most parents seek nutritional supplementation because they are concerned their children aren’t eating enough nutritious food, which could in part be because these children are picky eaters. “Getting a child to take a supplement can be as challenging as getting them to eat their vegetables,” Smith says, “which is why formulators are working to innovate with delivery systems that also offer favorable flavor.”
Conventional tablet supplements generally won’t work for kids, who have difficulty swallowing these pills, Faber says. Thus, developing appealing delivery systems is a huge focus in the children’s supplements industry.
“This first began with gummies and liquids, which are still popular, and sales are growing at 17% and 25%, respectively, according to SPINS as of July 2022,” says Smith. “Chewable vitamins are the next-bestselling format, and powders are gaining noteworthy traction at 20.5% growth, although considering that their annual sales are much less overall than the other formats. In addition to yogurt fortification, we find on-the-tongue dissolvable strips and on-the-go stick packs to be intriguing delivery formats that make supplementation easy to incorporate into one’s routine while removing the pill fatigue barrier.”
Farinella adds: “Fun formats like gummies, melts, stick packs, and fortified snacks and beverages better support adherence and are a growing supplement segment for kids and adults.”
Supplement makers also know that parents are the ones doing the shopping, and in order for them to buy a product, it needs to check some important boxes. This is why we see more vegan, sugar-free, and clean-label gummies on the market, Faber says. “Capitalizing on the natural trend by offering products that are free from artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives will also help [products] stand out as consumers are increasingly seeking clean-label options for their children.”
Farinella concludes, “The best children’s supplements feature clean, quality ingredients in great-tasting, fun formats with strong branding, compelling claims, and scientific substantiation to reach both parents and pediatricians.”