Children's food is one of the most daunting sectors for any company in the present climate. Rising obesity levels in children are one of the hottest topics in the sector. Is the food industry responsible for making kids unhealthy and fat? Kate Barker takes a look.

In this intense environment, companies operating in the children's food market must ensure they do nothing to damage consumer confidence in their brand. Aggressive marketing to young children, products that are seen as too unhealthy, and ill-conceived product promotions can all affect parents' opinions of a food brand, causing them to steer clear in future.

However, once this brand trust is developed, with both parents and children, food manufacturers are well placed to capitalise on a market that is valued at around €14-15bn in Western Europe and around US$10bn in the United States. Children have an increasing influence on parents' purchasing decisions, so coming up with a product that appeals to children, while also avoiding the disapproval of parents, can be lucrative.

Modifying existing brands

One way in which manufacturers can improve their image in the eyes of the parents is by introducing self-regulatory "nutrition manifestos", whereby companies undertake to improve the nutritional content of existing products, reduce portion sizes and introduce healthier alternatives.

Of course, besides looking out for the nutritional content of foods, parents will also want to be assured that products they give their children to eat contain no hidden dangers. Food scares can have a devastating effect on brand trust, and recent food scares such as BSE and Sudan 1 have made parents more concerned than ever about food contents. And fears are even greater where young children and babies are concerned.

Baby food a high-risk category

"People are instantly scared by baby food; it is a high, high risk area. It is a sensitive and emotional category. Retailers need to trust whoever is making this sort of food and they need to know you understand the technical and legal issues involved," Sally Preston, founder of Babylicious and Kiddylicious food companies, tells just-food.

Up until around 12 months ago, the three food industry megatrends of health, convenience and premiumisation had had little effect on the children's food market. But now health is competing with taste and novelty at the top of the agenda. Although parents may want health to be far and away the most important issue under consideration when manufacturers are planning new children's food products, ultimately the product has to taste good to children, who are notoriously fussy eaters. Despite efforts to make healthy products more popular with nutritional messages or by using tie-ins with popular children's television characters, if the product does not taste good, children will not want to eat it.

Convenience paramount away from home

One megatrend that has perhaps been overlooked in the children's food industry is convenience - particularly when joined with healthy eating - as Dragon Brands' Claire Nuttall tells just-food: "Given all the food scrutiny at the moment, there are very few healthy but easy snacks for kids when mums are out and about in the car or shopping. At home mums have the fridge and the choice of pre-planned purchases and stock items, but out of home it is much harder. Brand teams might try and create solutions for mums which are based around occasions and need states where being healthy is hard."

There has been much debate among the food industry, government and consumer groups about who is to blame for the current obesity problem. But whether or not manufacturers are responsible (manufacturers predominantly blame the sedentary lifestyles of children nowadays), there is little doubt that parents want to see that companies are doing everything they can to improve the nutritional quality of their products.

Product reformulation has really taken off in the last year, with manufacturers cutting the amount of salt, sugar and fat in children's food products. Companies have also increased marketing and communications encouraging children to follow a balanced diet and active lifestyle.

Exercise is not a cure-all

According to Bill Bartlett, sales and marketing director at McCain Foodservice, the obesity issue needs better management; he accepts that there is more to the issue than increasing exercise.

"We know that it is a case of 'calories in' not matching 'calories out'. Children are more sedentary now than ever before with DVDs, the Internet and computer games…There is a solution: we need to deliver well-balanced, favourite foods that fit it into a healthier balanced lifestyle. Exercise will help but is not the only solution. [The food industry] needs to deliver a balanced choice," Barlett tells just-food.

According to Julie Orsi, nutritionist at Unilever's Birds Eye for more than 12 years, there is a lack of understanding about nutrition.

"The new generation of parents did not have home economics or nutrition taught in school. Their parents were probably working as well, so they are not used to having home-cooked meals and they haven't been taught how to put cheap ingredients together to make a healthy meal," she tells just-food.

Teaching by TV

A new television programme, Planet Cook, currently on air in the UK and Germany, aims to correct this by teaching children how to cook meals from scratch and achieve a healthy balanced diet. Each episode features Captain Cook helping three young cadets to create a meal against the clock. All the recipes are analysed by independent, qualified nutritionists to fit within the context of a balanced, healthy diet. Nigel Stone, CEO of Platinum Films (creators and producers of Planet Cook), has invested a substantial amount to ensure the concept is nutritionally sound.

Heinz has been granted the UK rights to develop and produce a range of healthy and light meals for children based on the Planet Cook series. The Heinz Planet Cook range, which includes sauces, ambient meals and soups, has been designed for children and is intended to lead the market in terms of low salt, fat and sugar levels.

"We are confident that the Heinz Planet Cook range will help make meal times a more enriched family experience and encourage a positive approach to food and nutrition, that children can build on throughout their lives," says Matthew Mason, marketing manager at Heinz.

So there are new opportunities in the children's food industry, opportunities that can be taken advantage of with some careful thought and planning, and with one eye on current health issues. New product failure rates may be high, but the rewards that await a manufacturer who succeeds in tapping this lucrative market are undoubtedly worth the effort.

For more information on the children's food market with forecasts to 2010, click here.