Processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods repeatedly have been named as contributing factors to poor nutrition and high obesity rates among US children. But the food industry has numerous opportunities to improve its offerings, particularly for foods and beverages marketed with children in mind.
According to Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, surveys suggest that the vast majority of calories and added sugars in the average American diet come from foods purchased at the grocery store, so food companies and public health experts should focus their attention on those items.
“There is plenty that industry can do. Our job is to make the advice much more specific than the old advice to eat less and exercise more,” he said.
Changing the message
Dr. Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional science at Penn State University, said that the ‘eat less’ message was a focus point of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which put a strong emphasis on controlling portion size.
“People don’t really like this message, so I think the message needs to be rejiggered a bit,” she said.
In particular, Rolls said that research has shown children tend to eat more when given larger portions from a very young age. However, this could be used to their nutritional advantage, by increasing proportions of fruits and vegetables, for instance, or increasing vegetables presented at the start of a meal. This tendency would also justify more portion-controlled snacks for kids and reformulation of foods to increase fruit, vegetable or fiber content, or to reduce energy density through fat or sugar reduction, she said.
“One approach food companies are using is hiding vegetables in certain foods,” Rolls said. “We got vegetable intake up by over 100% by incorporating vegetables into entrees and reduced energy density by about 11%.
“…I would never suggest that this should be the only approach to getting kids to eat vegetables. Kids need to learn about vegetables and how they taste, but if you look at it as recipe modification, it is a strategy that works. I think this is something we could do more.”
Increased snacking: Opportunity or threat?
Director of Nutrition and Health Promoting Foods at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) in Illinois, Dr. Britt Burton-Freeman, agreed that modifying foods could be an important way to improve diet quality.
She said that snacking has increased 30% since the 1970s, but current efforts to alter diets tend to focus on changing behavior.
“Everybody knows that it is not easy to change behavior, so would it not be more productive to see snack foods as an opportunity?” she said. “…Technology can be used in a number of ways to improve nutrient density of snack foods.”
Burton-Freeman suggested that opportunities to improve snacks’ nutrient density could include ingredient modification; processing technologies to improve and enhance flavor and decrease the use of certain additives; enzyme technology and fermentation to improve nutrient bioavailability; and new strategies to enhance satiety and intensify taste perception.