Kids Weigh in on Nutrition

by Renee Marisa Covino
Like many adults, they’re confused about healthful eating, but also interested in it — as long as the products taste great.
Did you know that nearly 25 percent of kids don’t know which foods are good for them? Or that 73 percent of kids actually care about eating nutritiously?
As much as the issue of childhood obesity is hyped these days, it seemed odd to executives at The Geppetto Group, a New York City-based marketing agency, that nobody had yet talked to kids and looked at the subject through their eyes. So Geppetto stepped up to the plate and did just that, interviewing 675 8- to 10-year-olds in the fall of 2003.
The company detailed the findings in its “Health Through a Kid’s Eyes” report, which, according to Geppetto, is the first study to examine the connection between healthy eating, exercise and self-image from a child’s perspective.
“The press is making kid marketers a lightning rod around kids and health, so rather than being victimized, we wanted to give them a challenge,” says Jennifer Goodman, managing director of The Geppetto Group. “We wanted them to know what kids think about health and food so they could come up with responsible ways of handling this.”
Goodman suggests that major findings of the study indicate a “golden opportunity” for manufacturers to assume a leadership role in this area. Key findings include the following:
• 57 percent say there aren’t enough healthy foods that taste good.
• 59 percent say there aren’t enough healthy foods that are fun to eat.
• 48 percent don’t think there are enough portable healthy foods.
• Getting fat (80 percent) and being unhealthy (76 percent) are the two biggest fears kids have about eating junk food.
“Developing healthy products that taste good and are fun to eat should be the No. 1 objective for kid-food marketers,” says Rachel Geller, Geppetto’s chief strategic officer. She cautions, however, that marketers need to be careful about how their messages are worded and that any serious education efforts should be directed at the parents.
“If we want to change the way America eats, we should start with the parents, not with kids,” Geller adds. “If we talk to kids who are not thinking about their weight, or who do not have to think about their weight, we may upset the natural relationship that healthy kids have with food, which would be an unintended negative consequence in the fight against childhood obesity. This is a complex issue that requires a surgeon’s scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”
Candy manufacturers, specifically, “should not shy away from the fact that candy is a treat,” says Goodman. Balance and moderation should be their underlying marketing message.
“Marketers need to talk to kids about balance and portion control because that’s something that kids and parents don’t understand,” Geller adds.
For those candy manufacturers that do come up with candy alternatives formulated to address specific nutrition and health needs, learning the lingo can make or break them. “Labeling something ‘low-carb’ or ‘less sugar’ is the worst thing you can do in the world of kids,” maintains Goodman.
“To kids, when you indicate that you’re taking something away, they think that means it tastes bad. Remember, there’s a huge opportunity to address kids with healthier snacks that taste good. But what they don’t believe is that they’re fun enough or that they taste good enough. You have to rethink the way kids look at the category — and separate that from what you might be doing with adult alternatives.”
That approach makes sense to marketers at Au ‘some Candies, Monmouth Junction, N.J. The company includes the descriptor, “Made with Real Fruit Juice, Fortified with Vitamin C,” on the packages for its Candy Decorated Fruit Snack Collection.
“Kids are now more health-conscious,” says Rose Downey, sales support and marketing manager for Au’some Candies. “They know the value of it, and they want to be just like the older kids or adults — yet they want something that looks cool and tastes great.”
Taste was foremost on the minds of executives at Clif Bar Inc., Berkeley, Calif., when they recently created the Z Bar, an energy bar targeted to children.
“If you can’t make something healthy that tastes really great to kids, forget it, it’s not worth the effort,” says Betty Bredemann, product manager for Clif Bar.
Make Sure the Health Fit Fits
Confectionery vendors looking to respond to consumer health concerns with more than product introductions, take heed: Sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, especially in the fight against childhood obesity. Cadbury Trebor Bassett, Birmingham, England, learned that lesson the hard way. In May 2003, the candy company launched a major marketing drive to get kids to exchange their chocolate wrappers for sports equipment. The Get Active! initiative was a partnership with the Youth Sports Trust, a registered English charity that aims to increase children’s participation in sports. It received official government support, with the sports minister expressing his endorsement.

Very quickly, however, the program was attacked as a "scheme" by the National Union of Teachers and many U.K. health experts. So what was the problem? Kids were required to exchange 90 candy bar wrappers for a basketball, and health experts quickly calculated that an 85-pound child would have to play at least 100 hours of basketball to burn off the calories from that many candy bars. Cadbury was also criticized by the United Kingdom’s Food Commission, which announced that if British schoolchildren purchased all of the 160 million tokens that Cadbury planned to issue, they would have to buy nearly 2 million kilograms of fat.

"With growing concerns about children’s health and major efforts under way to help children learn to enjoy healthier food, the government’s sports ministry has failed to make the link between good diet, good health and sporting achievement," reported the Food Commission on its Web site.

"Instead, in the near-obsessional quest to attract private finance into the education system, they have fallen into the trap of believing that any source of funding for school equipment is acceptable — whatever the health outcome."

Here in the United States, Jennifer Goodman, managing director of New York City-based Geppetto Group, closely followed the Cadbury story.
"I believe they had good intentions to get kids active," she says.
"But they didn’t think it through. I’ve seen a lot of programs like this that try to positively help kids, but are viewed as negative because they look like a business scheme." Goodman’s advice for confectionery companies that are looking to truly make a difference with kids and health?
"Develop programs that focus on balance and moderation," she says.
"I also think it’s important to develop a corporate program as opposed to a brand program. You can help kids with more physical activity or you can help them to eat better nutritionally, but be aware that those companies that met with the greatest criticism developed programs that had nothing to do with their core or their brand. In Cadbury’s case, what do they have to do with the world of physical activity?"