According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children in the US who are obese has tripled from the 1970s so that today about one in five school children are obese.
While there are many factors that contribute to childhood obesity, including genetics, metabolism, environmental factors and social and individual psychology as well as physical activity, diet also plays a substantial part. And to that end, both caregivers and packaged food manufacturers have significant influence over what children are served and how their food preferences develop over time.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Robert Murray, a professor of pediatrics and of human nutrition at The Ohio State University, discusses what young children need nutritionally, how baby food manufacturers and parents are meeting these needs and where they are falling short. He also outlines several areas of innovation in the complementary feeding – or baby food – category and a few sticking points that still need development but hold marketing potential.
“We are kind of going through a transition in the US. The old way of thinking about complementary foods was to introduce foods one at a time every few days so that we could monitor whether the child was showing any signs of intolerance or allergies. And all the proteins that made up the major allergens were delayed until late in the last year between nine and 12 months,” he said.
However, new research suggests it is better to introduce potential allergens earlier and if there is no reaction to feed them to children often so that they are less likely to develop an allergy later in life, he said, adding, this has freed up caregivers and manufacturers to combine different foods earlier.
“Now the question is, what are we trying to accomplish based on what we know?” Murray asked.
The answer: augment energy and nutrients without going overboard, introduce different flavors and textures, and ensure acceptance of a variety of foods, which Murray says “is probably the biggest change that we have had from the previous way of thinking about complementary feeding.”
Ultimately, Murray says, parents – and the manufacturers of baby and toddler food they rely on – want to help children build “a really high quality dietary pattern, which is from all the different foods they are being offered, which is very strong nutritionally.”
While the goals may be simple, their execution often is not – meaning many children are not getting what they need nutritionally, even if they are eating more than enough calories. Murray explains part of this is due to parents accidentally transferring their bad eating habits to their children by either not eating their own vegetables or sharing snacks and desserts with their children. Or they don’t understand how much food children actually need – and they err on the side of overfeeding.
Where’s the beef?
Another reason children in the US develop bad eating habits is because many parents here rely heavily on packaged baby food, which may be improving but often still does not check all the ingredients in terms of ingredient variety.
“When we do complementary food, we make some pretty good choices generally in getting different food groups represented, but the choices within those food groups are not always ideal,” Murray said.
For example, 100% fruit juice comprises about 50% of the fruit young children consume. Similarly, sweet potato makes up the bulk of three-quarters of children’s vegetable intake, while only 6% of children are offered green vegetables like peas and broccoli.
“So, we really fall flat,” Murray said, adding that this is an area where manufacturers can help parents.
In addition, he said, only about 10% of children are offered beef, which provides more of the nutrients that children need – iron and zinc – than the more popular turkey, chicken, hotdogs and deli meat.
Murray said he understands why some parents are turned-off of beef in baby food – it is often brown, smells unappealing and as adults we are taught that it is high in unwanted nutrients, such as saturated fat and cholesterol.
Eggs are another ingredient that is often left out, but should be considered because it is a high quality protein, easy for children to eat and high in choline and omega-3s, Murray said.
To Murray’s point about many babies needing but not consuming enough beef, there is a new player in the baby food category that is addressing this head on. Serenity Kids launched a first-of-its kind baby food inspired by the paleo diet that, according to its founders, has the highest meat content of any pouched baby food. Of its three initial flavors, ones was 100% grass fed, grass finished beef with organic sweet potato and organic kale – which also crosses off Murray’s point about many baby food products not having enough dark green veggies.
Other players are addressing Murray’s concern about companies and parents relying too heavily on fruits to mask the taste of vegetables. For example, HPP baby food maker Fresh Bellies cooks vegetables to release their flavor, rather than blending and hiding them in fruit. Its lineup includes Got the Beet, Cauliflower Dreamin’ and Broccoli Ever After.
Do pouches set children up to be picky eaters?
While manufacturers are starting to address the nutritional shortcomings of the category, the way that the products are packaged also could contribute to childhood obesity by blocking them from fully understanding what they are eating.
Murray explains that children should experience food not just through taste, but also through touch and smell, which are hindered by modern pouches and spoon-feeding.
“Parents are always looking for convenience, which is why pouches have taken off so well,” but by taking the top off and giving them to children to self-feed, children don’t see, smell and feel the contents, when reduces their ability to learn about food, he said.
“I like the idea of giving babies large pieces [of food] that they can’t choke on … and allow them to play with their food. Ideally they mush it and get it on their face and fingers and smell it and taste it and they get exposed to it without the parents telling them to put it on a spoon,” he said.
Plum Organics’ recently launched baby food bowls could offer a solution to this problem. Yes the bowls are designed to be held in the palm of a caregivers’ hand, but because they are plastic they could be given to children so that they can use their hands to scoop out the food and as such experience the feel and smell, as well as the taste, of the product.
The future of baby food
Murray says he has also seen a lot of innovation around different types of finger foods made specifically for toddlers who are developing their hand-eye coordination and pinching skills, but there is room for improvement.
He also lauded manufacturers for actively improving the quality of the ingredients in their products so that there is a wider variety and children are gaining the nutrients they need without excess calories. Looking forward, he believes these trends will continue as will the trajectory towards more natural, healthy options.
“Where this area is going toward is more natural type foods, much more healthy foods, I think, looking for foods with fewer ingredients. We want very good quality. They don’t want to worry about food in terms of chemicals and other things in there and I think manufacturers have done a great job moving in that direction and responding to it,” Murray said.
However, going forward, Murray still sees room for innovation on the veggie front, while still offering taste and convenience.
“The challenge is that adults don’t eat [green vegetables] either and as a result it is really tough to get them into the toddler diet in an easy way, especially in the second year when they are eating more table foods and less baby foods,” Murray said. As such, he suggests more innovations around green vegetables, uncommon fruits, whole grains and dairy for slightly older children.