Two overarching concerns shape foods targeted at improving kids’ health. First, children need vitamins and minerals for their growth. Second, they need foods dense in nutrients without a lot of extra calories to avoid growing obese.

In the US, obesity afflicts an astonishing 17% of children and 33% of adults, according to the National Center for Health Statistics — that’s more than 12 million kids and 78 million grownups.

“For children, obesity is a matter of prevention, not treatment,” said Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation.

As the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) reported, the obesity epidemic puts people at risk of health problems now and in the future. Kristen Dammann, PhD, RD, regulatory senior scientist, Cargill, Minneapolis, MN, pointed out the guidelines’ several recommendations involving physical activity, food intake and healthy ingredients. “The guidelines offer a multipronged approach, as it has to be with childhood obesity,” she said.

On track, off track

Healthy growth requires good nutrition, but are today’s kids getting enough of what they need? “As children grow and mature, a proper daily level of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids is needed for optimum nutrition during their rapid development,” said Sam Wright IV, CEO, The Wright Group, Crowley, LA.

The B vitamins as well as vitamins A, C, D and K were listed by Cathy Arnold, senior formulation scientist, Fortitech, Schenectady, NY, who cited other needs, too. “Calcium is crucial to bone development and selenium for immune support,” she added. Development of cognitive function requires not only protein, energy and certain fatty acids but also iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A, folate and choline.

As children get older, their diet becomes more complex. “Kids are on track nutrition-wise until they’re about nine years old,” said Caroline Brons, senior marketing manager, human nutrition and health, DSM Nutritional Products North America, Parsippany, NJ. “Then the deficiencies show up.”

Quoting data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007-10 studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ms. Brons observed that older children, those nine to 13 years old, are less likely to meet the recommended intake for vitamin E (11 mg per day), an antioxidant that protects against damage from free radicals and supports skin and heart health.

Studies show that kids have moved away from milk to carbonated soft drinks over the years, putting many of them at a deficit for vitamin D, observed Dave Pfefer, category manager, fortification, Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, KS. “It would be reasonable to fortify baked goods with vitamin D, as many companies now do, to reverse this,” he said.

Calcium, Mr. Pfefer added, falls into the same category, and some of the more bioavailable forms of that mineral could be added to products targeted to kids. Many teenage girls are deficient in iron, and supplementing this mineral in their baked foods would provide a strong benefit. Vitamin A is important in skin and eye health.

A big push in kids’ nutrition related to growth factors concerns cognitive development, which is where choline fits the bill. Calling it an underappreciated nutrient, Kristine V. Lukasik, PhD, manager, scientific and regulatory affairs, food and nutritional ingredients, Balchem Corp., New Hampton, NY, said choline has synergies with DHA and B vitamins such as folate. “It is found naturally in foods that children generally avoid, particularly egg yolks, liver, cruciferous vegetables and legumes,” she noted.

Filling the gaps

Baked foods and snacks enjoy popular appeal among children, who widely consume them. Thus, these items could convey health and wellness benefits beyond the standard bread enrichment package.

“Baked foods and snacks can fill nutritional gaps because current kids’ diets lack nutrients including fiber, omega-3s, and several minerals and vitamins,” Ms. Arnold said.

Fortification with such nutrients is a suitable response to these needs, as long as the products’ sugar and fat profiles are kept low and the serving size is age-appropriate, Dr. Lukasik observed. “Addition of these nutrients at 10 to 20% of their recommended levels will allow ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ source claims,” she said.

The format of baked foods and snacks also supports their potential to improve kids’ health, according to Mr. Wright. “Kids will eat these products, unlike a lot of what their parents put in front of them,” he said. “These products also tend to be small, convenient and portable in keeping with the busy lifestyle of young people nowadays.”

Enriched and fortified foods provide a reasonable means to supply vitamins and minerals today as in 1941, when bread and flour enrichment was introduced to Americans. Yet Mr. Pfefer cautioned, “I do not think it is wise to fortify kid’s baked foods with all the latest designer nutrients for which a need has not been established.”

Children’s health is much on the minds of product developers such as those at Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. The company convenes a nutritional science advisory council once a quarter. “At the past two meetings, we’ve talked about the obesity crisis,” said Colleen Zammer, Bay State Milling’s director of product marketing. “It’s almost too late for adults, so the focus needs to be on kids, on getting them to adopt eating habits that won’t lead them into obese adulthood.”

Changing the rules

Companies developing foods aimed at improving children’s nutritional status find themselves operating in a changing landscape of rules, “some voluntary, some mandatory,” according to Dr. Dammann.

The biggest change involves foods for schoolchildren. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that serves 32 million lunches and 13 million breakfasts every day. Effective July 1 for the coming school year, new regulations govern these foods, although they stagger the implementation dates for some categories.

The final rule states half of grains must be “whole grain rich.” It goes into effect for lunch offerings for the 2012-13 school year, while breakfast foods must meet that standard for 2013-14. But by 2014-15, all grains must be whole-grain-rich at both breakfast and lunch.

Moving the target for whole grain content poses acceptability questions, but time may answer those concerns. “Older students, who have eaten school meals before the new guidelines, may notice the difference,” said Donna Reiser, Bay State Milling’s marketing specialist. “But the younger ones will grow up with whole grains at school.”

Foods offered in school settings include more than what the cafeteria line serves. Vending machines and food court options allow students to choose items not on the daily menu -

the so-called competitive foods.

“The guidelines also affect competitive foods,” Dr. Dammann said, “and we expect proposed rules on these foods soon.” She predicted that regulations would follow recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine and be consistent with 2010 DGA. “They will likely

differentiate between elementary and high school with more flexibility in the high school criteria,” she said.

Choose wisely and well

Food manufacturers face different options when improving a food’s nutrition quotient. Product, formula and market form all play a role.

“For instance, bland white bread would suggest the need for microencapsulated mineral forms to avoid bitter or metallic tastes in the baked food,” Mr. Pfefer explained. Staple foods, eaten daily, should get lower levels of fortification than items that may be consumed only once or twice a week. “The guiding principle should be that at the end of the day, when all of the child’s food intakes are added up, the values from the Recommended Daily Allowance table should be met,” he said.

Children’s likings must be taken into account. “The application has to be kid-friendly,” Ms. Arnold said. “Things like cookies and snacks work nicely for incorporation of custom blends of nutrients.”

Formulators must understand the setting in which the food will be consumed. “Is it designed for K-12 school food service or retail? What are the nutritional targets — more whole grain nutrition, higher fiber, lower sodium or something else?” asked Don Trouba, director of marketing, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE.

“We know that regardless of the nutrition, taste still trumps all,” he added. “If a healthier bakery product or snack food ends up in the trash rather than a kid’s stomach, it’s not doing what it’s intended to do.”

Processing conditions play a key role, too. Some ingredients do not require special handling, according to Dr. Lukasik. Choline, for example, is very thermostable. Others may only survive if microencapsulated.

Ms. Arnold explained that the formulator must consider the effects of exposure to light, oxygen and moisture as well as interactions with other ingredients. “We look at those issues to make sure the nutrient survives in the application,” she added. “The finished product must taste good and look good. The nutrient should fit the pH level of the food, and it must be bioavailable.”

The ability of the ingredient supplier to offer nutrients in forms suitable to the application is essential. Mr. Wright said The Wright Group addresses taste and odor masking, ingredient stability, prevention of ingredient interactions, enhanced solubility and controlled release.

“Enhancing heat stability is an important aspect,” Mr. Wright said, citing the company’s bake-stable vitamin C and its work to adapt calcium and vitamins A and D for baked breakfast foods as examples.

Nutrient packages for foods intended to support kids’ health are, like other fortification projects, highly specific. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Ms. Arnold said. “Each pre-mix is designed for the individual application.”

Ingredient suppliers will act closely with their customers to achieve desired nutritional profiles. Cheryl Borders, technical service, ADM, Decatur, IL, described discussions held between such partners. “Starting formulations can be provided,” she said. “Often, the recommended ingredients may be replacing part or all of an ingredient typically used in the application. This may require suggestions for processing modifications depending upon the functional characteristics of the recommended ingredient.”

The grain-and-fiber derby

Important improvements in children’s diets can be made by increasing the amount of dietary fiber and whole grains they consume. As bakers and their suppliers learn more about these ingredients, more opportunities emerge.

For example, whole grains have gone mainstream during the past decade. Supplying the Ultragrain family of whole grain white wheat flours, ConAgra Mills is working to meet the new USDA whole-grain-rich definition, according to Mr. Trouba. In this effort, the company developed its SuperKids Whole Grain Sampling Program. “For the past six years, this program has allowed school food service directors to sample great-tasting, better-for-you whole grain foods,” he said. “In our plate-waste studies with the University of Minnesota and K-12 Minnesota schools, we’ve shown that whole grain foods made with Ultragrain are liked as much as or more than their white-flour-

based counterparts.”

Bay State Milling turned its attention to developing items for the school market when its customers complained of the confusion caused by NSLP’s whole-grain-rich standard. Company product developers devised Easy GrAin pizza mix to fit the “more than half” whole grain requirement.

“From a formulating standpoint, whole grains have a whole host of issues,” said Susan Kay, applications manager, Bay State Milling. Enzyme usage, leavening techniques, sweetener selection — all are involved. “And you have to achieve the cool factor kids want.”

Bay State learned that the reformulated product need not exactly match the conventional item. “Because the new guidelines allow only products containing whole grains, the new version will not be seen by school lunch participants in a side-by-side setting,” Ms. Zammer said. “But it must look reasonably like the conventional product.”

Resistant starch, a form of dietary fiber highly compatible with baked foods, is another way to boost kids’ fiber intake. “Hi-maize resistant starch is particularly suited to bakery because it easily and invisibly replaces flour in baked foods while maintaining the taste and texture that consumers prefer,” said Patrick O’Brien, marketing manager, bakery, Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, IL. He also cited the company’s prebiotic and soluble fibers, whole grain corn flour and resistant dextrins that provide benefits for digestive, bone, joint, immune and blood sugar health. Such solutions improve the nutritional profile of foods by reducing total calories, calories from fat and grams of fat per serving.

“Nutrition can be addressed in two ways, by addition and by reduction,” he observed.

Given today’s imperative to raise kids’ health standards, producers of baked foods and snacks have many opportunities. “The fact is, we can all make a difference,” Mr. Trouba said, “and the first step is often a small step.” But nonetheless, it’s a step, a stride, a leap — all taken to change things for the better for kids and their futures.