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At this year's Food Marketing Institute Show in Chicago, one of the hottest product trends was better-for-you foods and beverages designed for kids. Whether it was major CPG companies exhibiting reduced-sugar cereals and juices on the main show floor, or smaller organic and natural producers displaying kid-friendly wares at the Organic Trade Association Show downstairs, it seemed that nearly every product category had at least one new and improved version for children.
In the more intimate spaces of McCormick Place, where educational sessions were being held, the topic was also up for discussion. One such presentation was led by William Sears, M.D., a renowned pediatrician, father of eight, author of more than 35 books on child care, and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. Sears was tapped several years ago by the Children and Families Commission of Orange County (California) to study the childhood obesity problem and come up with potential solutions. He shared some of his findings during a session geared toward retailers called "Promote Wellness and Impact Obesity: Using Nutrition to Win Shoppers."
To put the problem into perspective, the childhood obesity epidemic is considered one of the most serious health issues facing our country today, rivaling that of smoking. Around 15 percent of U.S. children are currently considered obese, and the number is growing.
What Sears unveiled about why this is happening may surprise some retailers and manufacturers—and some parents, too. His research suggests that the main basis of the childhood obesity epidemic is that children have lost their taste for what he calls "real food."
"After observing many children and conducting interviews, I realized that they believe food needs to be artificially sweetened and colored and packaged," says Sears. These artificial foods have largely taken the place of "whole foods" -- those found primarily in a supermarket's produce section, he says.
The answer to the problem, as Sears sees it, is to begin shaping young tastes. "It won't happen overnight, but parents need to begin early," he notes.
He has developed a solution called "Dr. Sears' LEAN Program." (LEAN is an acronym for Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitude, and Nutrition -- the "four pillars of health," according to Sears.) "LEAN Kids" is a version specifically designed for children age 6 to 11. The program includes guidance about which foods are good to eat, which foods should be eaten sparingly, and which foods should be avoided. To keep the concept simple for kids, he uses a traffic-light system in which red signifies "bad" food and green means "eat to your heart's content," for the most part.
LEAN Kids is currently in pilot testing in Boys & Girls Clubs in Orange County, Calif., but is set to expand throughout the state, and then go national later this year.
Sears has already begun using the LEAN Kids principles in his medical practice, but he also sees his program and similar concepts as resources that food retailers should be taking advantage of. While he acknowledges that the food industry has its own political dilemmas that make it difficult to favor one type of food over another, he maintains that supermarkets should consider being proactive because, as he sees it, "they've got to become more consumer-friendly.
"If I were a supermarket owner for a day, I'd ask myself which chains are doing the best," notes Sears. "I'd look at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, and ask what they're doing that I'm not doing."
Grocers can prepare educational handouts for kids, and they can develop POP materials that talk about healthy eating, he suggests. Sears has already come up with such ideas as a "Brainy Breakfast" handout, which promotes healthy breakfasts as a great way to start the day.
Sears also advocates the importance of mealtime at home -- a hook that a growing number of retailers are beginning to use win back share of stomach from the restaurant industry.
Need for uniform labeling
His ideas call to mind the groundbreaking food-rating system that Delhaize banners Hannaford and Sweetbay Supermarkets have been using in their stores to help educate shoppers on healthy choices. Hannaford reportedly found that unit sales of rated items rose 10 percent to 15 percent after the labels appeared.
In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the Food Standards Agency has developed a "traffic-light" system to show if a product contains high, medium, or low amounts of salt, fats, and sugar.
While the U.S. government may not take such steps beyond its revised Food Pyramid -- which Sears and other critics say is lacking in solid nutritional information -- more manufacturers are coming up with their own rating systems. Sears sits on the health-and-wellness advisory board for PepsiCo, whose Smart Spot symbol appears on better-for-you choices.
"Manufacturers are moving in the right direction," notes Sears. "Ultimately they need to come up with some sort of uniform labeling, but I don't know if that will happen."
For now, Sears will stick to educating patients and their parents, and hoping that others do the same.
Doctor's orders: Organic
William Sears, M.D., a renowned pediatrician who presented the "Promote Wellness and Impact Obesity: Using Nutrition to Win Shoppers" session during the FMI Show, says he encourages new parents to make baby food from scratch if possible -- or, if that isn't an option, he advises them to buy organic.
"The best alternative to homemade baby food is fresh frozen baby food. It must be organic," he says.
Sears believes so strongly in organic, in fact, that he's making a brave prediction: "My crystal ball says that in five years, there will be no such thing as inorganic baby food." He also believes that a lot more pediatricians will jump on the organic bandwagon.
EXCLUSIVE WEB CONTENT: Green means 'grow'
In Dr. Sears’ "LEAN Kids Program," "traffic-light eating" is pushed as a simple way to think about healthy eating. Green-light food is anytime food, yellow is for sometime food, and red means "Stop and think if you could make a healthier choice."
Here's a sample of where some common foods and beverages fall on the traffic light scale:
Whole grains (breads and cereals)
Low-fat milk and cottage cheese
Flaxseed oil and olive oil
100 percent fruit juice
Homemade cookies and pastries
Store-bought cookies and pastries
Drinks sweetened with sugar or corn syrup
Foods with hydrogenated oils