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Special edition: Kids' food

Giving children the best nutritional start

By Stephen Daniells , 23-Feb-2010
Last updated on 23-Feb-2010 at 13:11 GMT

With childhood obesity rates apparently sky rocketing around the world, celebrity chefs redesigning school meals, and international initiatives to influence what our children eat, now is an interesting time for child nutrition.

Infant feeding and child nutrition is the “most dynamic part of the food industry”, says Jeya Henry, Professor of Human Nutrition and director of the Functional Food Centre at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, and added that “industry has an enormous role to play”.

Prof Henry, who will speak at our sister site FoodManufacture’s Food for Kids conference in London next month, said that many multinational food companies are focussing on the nutrition needs of children, but some companies are “not producing foods based on good science”.

In the first part of our special edition on child nutrition, FoodNavigator looks at the key areas garnering attention in child nutrition circles.

Obesity

A subject never far from the headlines is childhood obesity, with statistics indicating that around 22 million children in the EU are overweight, of which five million are obese, while Stateside 16 per cent of children are said to be clinically obese.

According to Nestle Nutrition, research has shown that children respond to education, with the critical age range coming before puberty (between 5 and 11).

“When we look around and see the number of overweight children, it is clear that we must act now,” said Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for agriculture and rural development, at the launch of the EU’s ‘Eat it, Drink it, Move it’ initiative last year. “School Fruit and School Milk are two steps in the right direction, and with the healthy eating campaign we also deliver the message that ‘its fun to be fit’ right to the school gate.”

Prof Henry takes a controversial stance regarding obesity and weight management in children, particularly in younger children. “There is a misplaced emphasis on weight in these young children,” he said, noting that childhood obesity does not track into adult obesity. “Only about 30 per cent of obese children become obese adults,” he said.

There are also suggestions that increasing childhood obesity levels may also be driving the increases in food allergies, according to intriguing findings published last year in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (Vol. 123, pp. 1163-1169.e4).

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reported that data from over 4,000 children indicated that increases observed in allergic disease in children, particularly food allergy, may be due to obesity, with inflammation also linked to allergy development.

Brain health

Giving children the best possible start in life has seen a lot of attention diverted to their diet in their formative years. A lot of attention has focussed on the potential of omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in particular.

Mental development in child constitutes one of the three main consumer groups for cognitive health products, said Datamonitor, with the emphasis on improved concentration and school performance.

Various studies have supported the benefits of omega-3 fortified foods on school performance, but this remains a highly controversial area.

A diet rich in vitamins and minerals is also known to be vital, promoting calls for more intakes of fruit and vegetables. In apparent support, a joint British and Australian study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Nov 2008, Vol. 100, pp 1086-1096) found that multivitamins and minerals could boost the attention scores of children.

The authors claimed it to be the “first observation of acute behavioral effects of vitamins/minerals in human subjects”.

Bones

Bone health is also seen as a key area in child nutrition. With about 35 per cent of a mature adult's peak bone mass is built-up during puberty there exists potential to reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life, a disease that affects over 75m people in Europe, the USA and Japan.

Products fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and even magnesium are promoted for their ability to boost bone health, while a considerable body of science supports the intakes of prebiotics like inulin and oligofructose for enhancing bone health.

A study by Dr. Steven Abrams from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas reported that long-term human supplementation with inulin and oligofructose (Synergy1) in pubertal adolescents found that was about 30 milligrams of additional calcium accretion into the skeleton every day, which would equate to an extra 11 grams of calcium every year. (Am J Clin Nutr 2005, Vol. 82, pp. 471-476).

Efforts to promote intakes of dairy food in order to boost calcium intakes continue around the globe. Indeed, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in 2008 that it would approve new health claims linking calcium and vitamin D consumption to improved bone health and reduced risk of osteoporosis on certain dairy products.

However, Germany-based nutrition society, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (DGE) said last year that an emphasis on dairy and other calcium-rich foods as an effective means of preventing osteoporosis was down playing real solutions.

Talking to our sister site DairyReporter.com, a DGE spokesperson said that osteoporosis was a complex condition and diet alone could not provide a fix all solution to reduce the risk of contracting the condition.

Conference details

Organised by FoodNavigator’s sister publication Food Manufacture, the Food for Kids conference is scheduled for 9th March 2010 at America Square Conference Centre in London. For more information, please click here .

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