Making children and parents happy in the children’s food aisle

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 23 No. 10, Volume 23, Issue 10

Less sugar and more protein are top of mind for health-conscious parents buying children’s food, but delivering on taste and texture is still paramount to win with kids.

The challenge of children’s food is that it must win over consumers on two fronts: the parents who purchase the product and the children who will eat it. This can be a tall order because parents are becoming more discerning about their children’s health—but health hasn’t always been synonymous with great flavor, at least if you ask kids.

“To be successful, brands must balance delivering on kids’ sensory priorities—taste, texture, appearance—while also providing foods and beverages with the improved nutritional profile parents desire,” explains Carla Saunders, senior marketing manager, Cargill (Minneapolis, MN).

Luckily, there has been a great deal of progress in food technology, giving formulators better tools to meet these demands and giving parents better options on store shelves.

Sweet, Not Sugary; Meaty but No Meat

Among the top concerns for parents are sugar and protein content, says Saunders. “Concerns about childhood obesity have made sugar reduction and avoidance a central theme in parents’ purchase decisions,” she explains. Meanwhile, “Protein, especially plant proteins, are gaining popularity, as is the inclusion—sometimes stealthily—of more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. This is especially true in the snack space where our proprietary research found that parents are embracing options that have clear nutritional value—things like protein, whole grains, and fiber.”

Brands like Simple Mills (Chicago, IL) accomplish this through careful ingredient evaluation and formulation. Simple Mills has made a name for itself by offering everything a health-conscious parent wants: products that use only whole-food ingredients and that are free from grains, gums/emulsifiers, natural/artificial flavors, and gluten. It does a good job of taking everyday products and giving them a healthier spin, without compromising flavor.

“Our Chocolate Chip Crunchy Cookies are a great example of ‘cleaning up’ a conventional item,” says Jamie Rubenstein, Simple Mills’ brand manager. “Our Crunchy Cookies are almond flour–based for nutrient density and sweetened with coconut sugar, which we love because it is natural and unrefined.”

Another example is the company’s Veggie Pita Crackers. “We transformed the typical pita chip/cracker to include nutrient-dense ingredients,” explains Rubenstein. “With a classic pita taste and one-third serving of vegetables per serving, these dippable, crunchy crackers feature veggies as the number-one ingredient to help boost veggie intake.”

The children’s beverage space faces particularly high scrutiny when it comes to sugar content. “Euromonitor International suggests children’s beverage categories are in a state of terminal decline, but they don’t have to be,” says Saunders. Saunders recommends stevia products such as Cargill’s EverSweet stevia sweetener to reduce sugar levels by 70% while still crafting delicious beverages. Products like Cargill’s Zerose erythritol and Oligo-Fiber chicory root fiber can be sugar-reduction solutions for dairy, dairy alternatives, as well as snack bars and confections.

“Our latest proprietary research suggests that across the board, consumers are very accepting of the sweetener,” says Saunders. “When compared to 12 of the leading low-/no-calorie sweeteners, consumers ranked stevia as the most healthful as well as having the most positive perception on the label.”

When it comes to protein in children’s food, plant protein is particularly popular, and the ideal vessel appears to be frozen foods. “Not surprisingly, convenience plays well in households with children, so frozen pizzas, kid-friendly nuggets, and other easy-to-prepare ready-meals are still a hit with busy families,” says Erin Radermacher, senior technical services specialist, Cargill. Thankfully, frozen food has come a long way to provide chef-inspired meals and label-friendly formulations.

Plant proteins give a frozen meal a healthier halo. “Take frozen pizza, a longtime staple of kid-friendly foods,” explains Melissa Machen, senior technical services manager, Cargill. “You’ll find pizzas topped with sliced pepperoni meat alternatives and plant-based Italian sausage crumbles. Developers are even closing in on creating really good plant-based cheeses, opening the door for vegan pizzas.”

Ingredients such as Cargill’s SimPure starches offer frozen foods control over syneresis, high-process tolerance, and freeze-thaw stability. Plant proteins such as Cargill’s Prosante textured soy flour offer a good source of protein while also mimicking the mouthfeel and texture of traditional ground meat. Unlike older consumers who have a point of comparison when trying alternative products, children exposed to plant protein at an early age may be more likely to continue eating plant-based products into adulthood, not viewing it so much as an alternative to meat but simply as another option. Ensuring optimal taste and texture of children’s products on the whole secures repeat customers because children are creatures of habit, and if the food they want is healthy, their parents are happy to supply it to them.