If food companies want to help combat childhood obesity, they need to make kids’ foods high in nutrient content but low in calories, but they can’t neglect taste appeal. A panel of nutrition researchers, speaking at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting in late June, examined factors influencing the eating patterns of children and made recommendations favoring nutrient-dense, energy-light foods.

Epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski, PhD, professor and director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at University of Washington, dissected information from NHANES 2003-08 data sets to reveal that vegetables contribute only 7% of calories in the diets of American children, with grain-based desserts accounting for 28% and bread 8%.

“There is plenty the food industry can do to make good-for-you foods more interesting [than empty-calorie snacks], to make them more diverse and more nutrient-dense,” Dr. Drewnowski said.

Children learn food preferences very early in life, according to Julie Mennella, PhD, a member of Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA. “The first year of life determines who we are and who we will become, as it relates to food,” she said. Even pregnancy influences such likings. Flavors travel from mother to child through her amniotic fluid and breast milk. “The foods mothers eat influence their children’s senses,” she added. “But the mother has to eat that food for the baby to learn its taste.”

Describing research at Penn State University, Barbara Rolls, PhD, director of the college’s Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior, verified that portion size affects food intake by kids, just as it does among adults. “The bigger the portion, the more they eat,” she said.

Penn State scientists experimented with foods containing hidden vegetables that lowered the energy (calorie) density. They found children fed these foods consumed fewer overall calories, by up to 200 per day, yet ate a consistent total weight of food.

“Increasing the water content has the biggest effect,” Dr. Rolls observed, “and the primary players in this game are fruits and vegetables.”

Snacks make up a big part of children’s diets, rising from 1.3 snacks per day in the 1970s to 3.0 today — an increase of 30%, observed Britt Burton-Freeman, PhD, an assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology. “Kids snack at the rate of 500 to 800 Cal per day,” she said, and snacks now represent 25 to 28% of calories ingested daily.

“The behavior of snacking is not detrimental, but the foods chosen are,” she continued. “The foods that kids like and eat are nutrient-poor and energy-dense.”

Methods to produce nutrient-dense, energy-light foods exist now. Dr. Burton-Freeman identified technological alterations through enzymes, encapsulation, fermentation and biotechnology; replacement of fat and sugar; addition of fruits and vegetables; and ingredient choices that enhance satiety and satiation.