- Diets for U.S. youth improved by 27% from 1999 to 2016, according to a new study published in JAMA. This improvement was measured at various levels with the proportion of youth with a poor quality diet declining "significantly" from 76.8% to 56.1% and those with intermediate quality diets increasing from 23.2% to 43.7%. The number of youth with an “ideal quality” diet increased from 0.07% to 0.25%.
- Data from the study was based on the American Heart Association’s continuous diet score, a measure that tracks total consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium.
- Across the 31,420 participants, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption decreased while consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, poultry and eggs increased. There was no significant change within processed meats, refined grains, nuts and seeds, and fish and shellfish categories.
Many Americans are on a mission to eat healthier food. A Nielsen report found that although from 2018 to 2019, sales of fresh foods were up $4.6 billion, organics sales increased more than $925 million and plant-based foods rose $982 million, consumers want to eat even more better-for-you products. Those sales and eating behaviors reflect preferences that are transitioning from parents to their children.
This new JAMA study shows how children are now eating more whole fruits, cheese, yogurt and less red meat, milk and fruit juice. But this is not the first research to report this trend. A study by Amplify Snack Brands and the Center for Generational Kinetics found that 55% of millennial moms said their kids are more likely to choose a better-for-you snack.
While the chosen snacks are not always packaged products, that choice is becoming more common as the trend toward smaller, on-the-go options is replacing the more traditional three meals a day model. According to Mondelez International's "State of Snacking" report, 70% of millennials prefer snacking to eating meals, and it is that millennial demographic that now represents a big chunk of today's young parents.
Not only are millennials keener on snacking, but they are also a demographic that has pushed for healthier options and seeks foods that are not only nutritious but labeled with free-from buzzwords like all-natural, non-GMO, low or no sugar, and with no artificial ingredients, according to a report from Packaged Facts.
In response to the potential for significant growth in market share, CPG companies have been rolling out options geared toward children with the qualities that parents are searching for. Chobani has a kids' line, while Kind Snacks and Kellogg's RxBar have also launched products geared toward children. PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division developed a child-focused, non-GMO snack line last summer called Imagine, featuring yogurt crisps and cheese stars. And Ingenuity Brands recently introduced kids' yogurt designed to support developing brains.
Despite increasing healthful choices, there may be an inconvenient truth buried among the proliferation of options. A study from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia found that children who are given a wider variety and larger quantity of pre-packaged snack foods ate significantly more. This is especially problematic in a market that is seeing a rise in faux junk food — treats disguised in better-for-you packaging.
Even if kids aren't exclusively consuming junk, the quantity they are consuming could still be harmful to their health in the long run by contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. Processed food has also been linked to childhood allergies and health problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. And this fact could come at a cost for the food industry. A U.S. Access to Nutrition Index report found the 10 largest U.S. food and beverage companies lack the necessary strategies, policies and action to help in the fight against diet-related diseases.
Still, overall, having access to a plethora of healthy options is preferable to providing children with poor quality nutrition. As such, it is unlikely that parents will stop seeking out better-for-you options for their children. With consumer preference in their court and this new JAMA study showing that kids’ diets are visibly shifting toward healthier food, food companies would do well to continue to innovate and produce healthy alternatives for parents looking to feed their kids well in a world that demands on-the-go solutions.