Straining under parental pressure

Children’s food and drink manufacturers, accustomed to making their products stand out with free gifts, will have to start appealing to parents concerned about health issues

The children’s food and drink market in Europe has seen little change in recent years. In the past, products have been colourful and featured animations, novel shapes and games, but a report from food and drink research company Leatherhead Food International shows that this is about to change.

The report found that growing concerns about childhood obesity means that food manufacturers will increasingly need to target parents when launching new products aimed at children.

The most important issue for parents is health, although this takes a variety of forms, from fat and calorie reduction to additive removal and the provision of natural and organic foods. There will also be an increase in products with functional ingredients, such as probiotics and added vitamins.

This change in parental attitudes to health and the content of food products is likely to be lasting as governments across the continent look to address the obesity issue through policy and, in some cases, legislation. It is a shift that food manufacturers must take seriously due to the sheer number of children that it will affect.

In 2003, there were 66.4 million children aged under 19 years old in the five largest European countries alone. This accounts for about 22 per cent of the five countries’ total population. Of this figure, 11 per cent were aged between five and 14 years old.

The UK had the highest proportion of children aged between five and 14 years old in 2003 with 12.7 per cent. France is second with 12.4 per cent, Germany third with 10.2 per cent and both Italy and Spain have less than ten per cent.

The report found that in light of the recent publicity surrounding low-carbohydrate diets, 16 per cent of parents are now placing some importance on reducing their children’s carbohydrate intake. However, there is much greater concern about fat and sugar reduction, with 48 per cent of parents saying that this is very or extremely important to them.

The UK Government’s promotion of the five-a-day fruit and vegetables scheme appears to be working, with 69 per cent of parents believing that it is very or extremely important for their children to eat more fruit and vegetables. Encouragingly, no respondents said it was totally unimportant.

Looking at functional ingredients and their related health issues, 22 per cent of parents believe that cholesterol reduction is of some importance in a child’s diet and that it becomes more important as the child gets older. The fortification of food items with vitamins and minerals is seen to be very or extremely important by a quarter of parents. But the respondents attach the most importance to Omega-3 fatty acids, which suggests that health messages regarding the benefits of Omega-3s, which are found in nuts and oily fish, are getting through.

The report found that parents believe children are most influenced by the taste and flavour of products, with 86 per cent saying that it is very or extremely important. Parents also believe that health is another very important factor influencing their children, most notably among older children, with 56 per cent of respondents saying it was very or extremely important to their children.

Other factors that parents claim influence children are convenience, which was mentioned by 32 per cent of respondents. However, just 17 per cent felt that the brand was important to their children, the same number that believed peer pressure was an issue.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the bad press that advertising and character merchandising have received over the past year, only 14 per cent of parents felt that advertising influenced their children, and 11 per cent felt that characters and collectables would sway their choice.

Leatherhead asked parents to name three companies or brand that they trust the most when it comes to children’s food and drink. The names mentioned most often were Bird’s Eye, Heinz, Kellogg and Robinsons. Retailers such as Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco and also featured strongly, demonstrating the importance own-label ranges to British shoppers and how much trust customers have in the products featured in these ranges.

There is evidence of products being launched with added parent appeal including Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Muddles, which contain the prebiotic ingredient Inulin; Delamere Dairy’s Chocolate Goat’s Milk for lactose-intolerant children; Walkers’ Potato Heads crisps, which have 70 per cent less fat than standard crisps; and Nestlé’s Munch Bunch Drinky+ probiotic milk drink. Charal’s Kid P’tits Palets burgers made with 60 per cent beef and 30 per cent vegetable pieces as a hidden ingredient has been launched in France. Other launches include organic products and those with extra fruit or calorie reduction

This activity demonstrates that manufacturers are aware that concerns are growing about healthy eating and that parents are increasingly placing importance on the need to give their children healthy food.

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