Children are the largest demographic currently not eligible for vaccination against Covid-19, leaving many parents concerned about their health, especially as schools and childcare facilities have started to reopen. Ensuring a healthy diet is one factor that parents can control, meaning they increasingly are looking for foods and supplements to safeguard their children’s wellbeing.
“Knowledge and awareness of what kids should eat really aren’t the issue,” said Ali Webster, Director of Research and Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in a recent FoodNavigator webinar. “What we have found in our research is that most people already know what a healthy eating pattern for children looks like, or if they need some guidance, they know where to go for information.”
Barriers to better nutrition
However, she added that despite parents’ familiarity with nutritional guidelines, most children do not meet dietary recommendations, including for fruit and vegetable consumption, and most consume too many calories from added sugars and solid fats. According to IFIC research, the top obstacles to healthy eating are kids’ picky eating, and the cost and taste of healthy food.
“For those who have an especially watchful eye on their grocery budgets, it can be really hard to reconcile putting a healthy food on a child’s plate when we know that they’re probably going to turn up their nose to it,” she said.
Veggies, snacking, and sugar
Parents and caregivers pinpointed certain aspects of children’s diets that they would most like to improve, including willingness to try new foods, variety of foods, vegetable consumption, snacking habits and the amount of sugar consumed. Adults found it particularly difficult to get their children to eat a variety of vegetables, and during the Covid-19 pandemic specifically, 37% said children were snacking more than they normally would.
“Of those who said their kid’s nutrition was negatively impacted by the pandemic – essentially their diet got worse during the pandemic – about a quarter of them said it was because of snacking, and this was because of both the amount and the types of snacks their kid was taking in.”
However, only about 10% of parents said their child’s nutrition suffered during the pandemic. That said, many parents are prioritising their children’s happiness and have been giving them more treat foods over the past two years, and several companies have seen an opportunity in making treats for children that are also better-for-you options.
Companies acknowledge that kids’ food cannot all be overtly healthy, and options with ‘hidden’ fruits and vegetables now extend beyond childhood staples like pasta and sauce. US brand Peekaboo Ice Cream launched unicorn swirl and cookie dough ice creams for kids in June 2020. Both are certified organic, and have a full serving of courgette (zucchini) per container.
Sugar is another hot topic, with 90% of parents saying they try to limit their children’s sugar intake, according to IFIC – but 90% of children eat sweets at least once a day, three-quarters regularly drink juice, and 25% often consume sugary soft drinks.
“This is a prime example of an area where our aspirations are not aligning with the realities of our situation,” said Webster.
Growth & development and immune health
Growth and development was the number one issue that parents were concerned about, followed by immune health, IFIC found.
According to Innova Market Insights, immune health benefits have become a major focus in kids’ foods and beverages as a result of Covid-19, with a particularly large amount of innovation in products for gut health and immunity.
“Products for infants and young children focus on gut health ingredients, namely probiotic bacterial cultures and prebiotic fibres that help strengthen the immune system,” the market researcher said, adding, “the gut is a main source of protection against harmful organisms”.
More generally, less sugar, more protein and more fruits and vegetables are among the top qualities parents seek in foods for kids, and health and nutrition claims have become more widespread in recent years. However, researchers have highlighted that many of those are misleading, according to a recent study in the Archives for Disease in Childhood, with fruit portion size and no added sugar claims among the worst offenders. At the same time, these are also the kinds of claims that tend to be most attractive to parents.