By Carol Neshevich
When Abby Langer was growing up, food manufactured specifically for kids was frequently focused on pleasing children’s palates, and lots of sugar was often the easiest way to win over a child’s heart. Back then, nutrition wasn’t always top of mind when it came to food aimed at kids.
“I’m a child of the 1970s and ’80s, so I’ve lived through the Dunkaroos and the sugar cereals and toys-in-the-cereal-boxera,” says Langer, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and nutrition consultant. But things are quite different now, she says: “Manufacturers are now trying very hard to improve the quality of the food that’s marketed to kids and parents. Manufacturers know that parents are smarter now, and they have access to more information than they did back then. And parents are using that information to choose the products that their kids are going to eat. So manufacturers are getting smarter and are trying to change up the ingredients to produce a higher-quality product in a lot of categories.”
The folks at Food for Tots — a Markham, Ont.-based catering company that provides meals and snacks for children attending daycare/childcare centres and schools — agree that parents are much more informed about food and nutrition than they used to be. Food for Tots is on the front lines when it comes to hearing what parents really want their kids to eat, and according to Samantha King, Food for Tots’ Customer Relationship manager, parents are increasingly becoming “concerned about sugar and salt content, use of preservatives, creating balanced meals.” She adds that “the ideas of local and fresh are more popular as well. Parents also ask more questions about where food is coming from, what is in the food, how it is being prepared. We have seen a steady increase in direct inquiries from parents about the foods being provided for their children, as well as inquiries from centres/schools on behalf of parents.”
With today’s nutrition-savvy parents in mind, protein bar manufacturer Clif Bar & Company has launched a bar aimed at kids called Clif Kids Zbar. On the Clif website these bars are described as “an organic baked whole grain snack made with a nutritious blend of carbohydrates, fibre, protein and fat to maintain kids’ energy…so kids can keep zipping and zooming along.” They come in flavours like Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Chip and Iced Oatmeal Cookie, and feature eight to 10 g of whole grains per 36-g bar. Abby Langer is also a “nutrition ambassador” for Clif Bar, and as a dietitian and a mom, has high praise for the new bars. “I like that they’re made with high-quality organic ingredients, they don’t have too much sugar in them, and they’re easy — I just grab them and put them in my kids’ lunchboxes, or grab them as we leave the house,” she says, noting that nutrition and convenience are two very high priorities for parents these days. “I also like that my kids enjoy them. Kids want something that tastes good. Obviously parents want something healthy, but just as importantly, they want something that kids are going to eat. It’s really no use buying something that the kids aren’t going to eat.”
That’s where a big challenge lies when it comes to food for kids: manufacturers need to offer something that is healthy enough to appeal to the sensibilities of well-educated and informed parents, yet tasty enough to appeal to the kids.
Iögo — a yogurt brand manufactured by Quebec-based Ultima Foods — believes it has found that sweet spot with its highly successful nanö line of yogurt products aimed at kids. The taste of the fruity flavoured yogurts and drinkables are appealing to kids’ palates, while parents will be happy with their nutrition profile. As parents grow their knowledge about the health benefits of the active bacterial cultures in yogurt, in addition to the benefits of calcium for a growing child, yogurt is certainly a product that many moms and dads are pleased to add to their childrens’ diets. Iögo steps up its nutritional game by ensuring that there are no artificial flavours or colours in their products.
As Langer already noted, it also helps when products are convenient enough to make life easier for today’s on-the-go families — and iögo nanö products use innovative packaging to appeal to the busy parent’s desire for convenience. “The notion of portability, and anything you can do to be spill-proof or mess proof, helps with people’s busy lives,” says Simon Small, vice-president of Marketing at Ultima Foods. “So we have introduced a spill-proof cap for our drinkables, and our little [yogurt] pouches are perfect for little hands to be squeezing them, and perfect for on-the-go. They’re good for either sitting around the kitchen table or taking along on the way to wherever the busy family is going.”
Packaging innovations like squeezable pouches for yogurt and spill-proof caps for drinkables also help foster independence in young children, says Small. The little ones can feed themselves easily and feel good about it, while their parents don’t have to worry about that independence leading to a mess to clean up.
Another interesting thing iögo has done is to incorporate vegetables into its flavourings for kids’ yogurt, as opposed to staying with the more traditional fruit flavourings typically usedin yogurts. There’s now a combo pack of nanö yogurts that features Peach-Carrot, Banana-Squash, and Blueberry-Beet yogurts,while the squeezable pouches now have an Apple-Cherry-Beet offering. “So it’s not just fruit flavourings, it’s also vegetables,” says Small. “It’s introducing the concept that you can add a beetroot or a carrot or squash into the flavour profile, and it’s about helping parents, but at the same time creating a fun platform for introducing vegetable flavours into [kids’] diets.”
Indeed, a growing trend in feeding kids includes efforts to introduce children to a wider variety of tastes and flavours — including tastes that haven’t traditionally been considered part of “kids’ foods” in North America. Children are now becoming more familiar with international flavours, says Julia Selby, vice-president of Business Development at Food for Tots, and their palates are certainly becoming broader as they become introduced to a wider variety of foods and tastes. “Do children still love spaghetti and meatballs? Absolutely!” says Selby. “But they are also eating butter chicken, green salads, turkey burgers, and carrots with yogurt-based vegetable dips. As the current trend ofplant-based proteins continues to increase, it will be interestingto see how children’s palates evolve, as we currently see less acceptance towards egg, bean and chickpea dishes. However, I can see that changing over time.”
Lulu Cohen-Farnell, founder of Toronto-based Real Food for Real Kids, a catering company that serves childcare centres, schools and camps, agrees that kids are learning to enjoy a wider variety of tastes and flavours. Cohen-Farnell even finds that children themselves — particularly older kids — are starting to really want to eat healthier on their own, and not just because their parents told them to. “They know about healthy food vs. non-healthy food,” she explains. “Nowadays, if there’s something healthy, they’re likely to choose it. They’re more aware of how food makes them feel, and they talk more between them about it.”
Still, while parents and even kids themselves are increasingly knowledgeable about nutrition, and manufacturers are making greater efforts to supply Canadians with healthier food for kids, Cohen-Farnell has a takeaway message she wants to send to Canadian food manufacturers: “We must all take responsibility for the health of the children. Every corporation should think about profit and the bottom line in a different way,” she says. “So it’s about thinking a bit more organically, a bit more about the big picture, and asking the question of what do we want? Do we want to have a healthy population that’s going to continue to buy all of the healthy products that we make? Or do we want to create a population of sick people who are going to spend more money on medicine than they do on food? I’m calling for all producers and manufacturers of the food we eat to share in this responsibility. And if we do this, I think there’s money to be made, there are profits to be had, and there will be healthier people.”
This article appeared in the print issue:June 2017 edition, Special Report section