The obesity epidemic has placed the spotlight firmly on how healthy the food we provide our children with actually is.
Across Europe, multi-stakeholder initiatives focus on providing educational support to help children develop healthier lifestyles.
The EU healthy eating campaign, ‘Eat it, Drink it, Move it!’, includes a roadshow that visits school children between the ages of eight and 12. The message: Eat well “because it’s fun to be fit”. There are numerous similar national campaigns, such as France’s Programme National Nutrition Santé (PNNS) or the UK’s Healthy Schools initiative.
According to figures from the European Association for the Study of Obesity, these efforts are failing to stem the rising tide of European schoolchildren classified as obese or overweight. The EASO estimates that 16-22% of Europe’s schoolchildren are overweight, 4-6% of whom are obese. This means around 11.8-16.3m four-to 18-year-olds are overweight.
And these figures are accelerating. “Rapid increases in the prevalence of overweight schoolchildren are being seen in all EU countries for which data are available,” the researchers note.
During the 1970s, the childhood obesity rate rose by around 0.2%, the 1980s saw the rate of increase stand at 0.2%-0.6% and the early 1990s saw increases of between 0.3%-0.8%. By the late 1990s and early 2000s the annual rate of increase had crept to as much as 2% - and this coming off a higher base. The research centre estimates that over 20m European children will be overweight within a decade.
Current consumption fails to embrace health
Awareness of ‘healthy eating’ among young people has risen – but it would seem that the reality of their consumption patterns do not always reflect this.
Young people in France are eating less fruit and vegetables than previous generations. Forty-five percent of French children aged 17 and under consumed fewer than two portions per day in 2016, compared to 32% in 2010, research from think tank Crédoc revealed.
Similar consumption issues are evident in Germany. A survey conducted on behalf of frozen food manufacturer Iglo by Kantar Emind found that while 89% of German mothers feel “adequately informed” about what constitutes a balanced diet for children, they are not always able to put this information into action. A majority of children – 69% - snack on sugary sweets more than once a day and just 23% eat the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day.
According to a survey from UK retailer Sainsbury’s, released this year, 95% of UK 11- to 14-year-olds understand that it is important to “maintain a balanced diet” and eat five fruits and vegetables a day. “The good news is that most of the children surveyed understood the importance of healthy eating,” Sainsbury’s said.
The bad news is it's again apparent that children’s diets do not always reflect this understanding: 71% of the same children included in the survey said that they do not limit the amount of sweets or chocolate they eat; 54% will “occasionally or never” limit their intake of fried food; and 27% will have a fizzy drink with their evening meal.
Part of the problem, the survey results suggested, is that healthy food is seen as “boring” with 31% of children stating that this prevents them from eating more healthily.
“The reality is that healthy foods and drinks do not compete on a level playing ground,” researchers from Innova Market Insights noted. “Healthy offerings, even if employing effective marketing tactics like character licensing and personalised labelling, stand to lose out to their less healthy competitors employing the same strategies. The upshot is that healthier choices will always have to work that much harder at capturing their audience.”
There is clearly an opportunity for the food sector to be part of the solution.
Healthy innovation ups the ante
Food makers targeting children have placed healthy messaging at the centre of their innovation efforts. This has the potential to re-imagine how children as consumers think about ‘health food’, driving excitement while also appealing to parents and - ultimately - increasing consumption.
“Health continues to be the main focus for product development targeting children,” researchers at GlobalData told FoodNavigator.
“Claims such as low/no fat or sugar have become increasingly popular in child-oriented products across Europe. Moreover, ‘clean label’ is trending in products that target children. Parents like the idea that these products are more natural and free-from additives that could affect children’s health and development.”
Innova identifies early years nutrition as a crucial opportunity for food makers to instill healthy eating in future generations. “Brands need to tackle the lack of awareness that persists in the area of early introduction of unadulterated, single vegetable flavours. Understandably, brands are reluctant to launch products which are unlikely to be an instant hit with their intended audience. This is why it might be a good idea to make such products part of a much larger educational project that has boosting children’s vegetable consumption as its core aim, involving multiple stakeholders.”
Elsewhere, healthy snacking is viewed as a strong opportunity for food makers. In particular, dairy-based categories – already considered naturally high in nutrients such as calcium and protein – offer potential to expand in snacks. In bakery, wholegrain crackers afford the opportunity to differentiate. Meanwhile, Pure Fruit YoYos from Bear or Kidylicious from The Kids Food Co are marketed as lunchbox fillers.
However, Eurominitor analyst Pinar Hosafci warned, many multinational food makers view snacks innovation targeting children as something of a gamble, primarily because sweet and savoury snacks are viewed as 'unhealthy' options in Europe.
“Few multinationals have dared to venture too far into this product area. Intersnack, owner of the POM-Bär extruded snack, is perhaps an exception to this, but the question remains: Is marketing a snack product at children worth the risk?”
Noting that per capita consumption of fruit snacks in European and North American markets are only one-tenth the size of chocolate confectionery revenues, she nevertheless suggested that fruit snacks and nuts are well-placed to deliver on healthy snacking needs.
“If snack manufacturers are planning to boost sales by producing child-specific products, they might think of extending their snack portfolio beyond crisps and into healthier areas. In addition to traditional fruit snacks, fruit and vegetable purées could also present an opportunity,” she noted.