Kiddie Meals

Organic Foods Aimed at Children are More Than Just a Pretty Package

Environmental toxins are the stuff nightmares are made of—but there’s no need to wake up in a cold sweat over packing your child’s lunch. Rest assured that the voices of both concerned parents and picky eaters have spoken, and food manufacturers are listening.

Reason Enough

Many would argue it’s about time. Pesticide residues on conventional kids’ food continues to be too high, according to a follow-up to the 1999 Consumer’s Union report “Do You Know What You’re Eating?” Close scrutiny of five years worth of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program demonstrated that the safe chronic dose of chemicals, the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency feels “reasonably certain” a child would suffer no harm over lifetime exposure, was exceeded with several foods. And while the report’s authors calculated that the odds of any single child getting an acute dose of pesticides are small, odds that a dangerous dose will reach a significant number across the whole population, 20 million U.S. children age six or younger, are great. Especially when adding up exposures from multiple foods and meals.

A 1998 report by the Environmental Working Group supported that notion: On any typical day, according to “Overexposed,” 600,000 children under age six exceed their safe acute dose of organophosphate pesticides through their typical diet. One million kids under six exceed their safe chronic dose on any given day. And more than 63 daily exposures to persistent organic pollutants (linked to serious developmental disorders) are likely, according to the Pesticide Action Network’s “Nowhere to Hide” report released this past November.

“The more we learn about chemicals in the environment, the more we learn that very, very early in life is the most susceptible period,” says Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Childhood is a period of critical organ development and rapid growth. And during this vulnerable time, children pound-for-pound ingest more food and drink more water than adults, and have less diverse diets, exposing them to more concentrated residues.

Starting Off Right

This realization has sent many a new parent running for the aisles of the nearest natural food store to pick up jars of organic baby food, like Earth’s Best or Organic Baby. “Quite a few parents think it’s too late for themselves, as they were born and raised on conventional foods with their chemicals and pesticides,” says Michelle Barry, director of qualitative studies at market-researcher The Hartman Group, “but they are hoping for a better health position for their kids. They want to start them off with a clean slate.”

Parents then find the transition to toddlerhood is paved with Earth’s Best organic whole grain cereals and bars, and an array of instant organic oatmeals, hugga bear cookies and tretzels “baked specially for little hands” by Healthy Times. Yo Baby yogurt from Stonyfield Farms is made expressly from organic whole milk.

It’s the next age group, however, that has become the most recent industry niche. Organic companies are scrambling to assure the parents of growing kids that even processed foods like pop tarts and pudding snacks can be made from healthy ingredients, while still appealing to the sensibilities of their younger, and more finicky, market.

Whole categories strong for kids are experiencing considerable growth as a result, says Paddy Spence, CEO of San Francisco-based Spence Information Services (SPINS). Take dairy, for instance: Organic milk sales have increased more than 40 percent in natural food stores, and yogurt, more than 45. The growth can be seen across the retail board in conventional supermarkets, too, says Spence.

Fourteen percent of parents polled by Hartman’s Organic Lifestyle Shopper Study during 2000 now admit they buy organics and natural foods for kids under age 18; the same is true for 20 percent of parents with kids under age six.

Kid’s Choice Awards

But while parents may well be long won over, bounty from the natural foods store would never cut it for many young eaters compared with the colorful boxes and characters found on Saturday morning television and in their friends’ kitchens. “The organics industry needs a shot in the arm,” affirms Sharon Egan of Ketchum, Idaho, who has always encouraged her daughters Tara and Makayla to eat organic foods. “Look at what they have to compete with. They need to be fun, not reverent.”

Making organics appealing to kids takes more work, however, than putting it in an outrageous box. Natural foods retailer Whole Foods developed its kids’ line the hard way, taste-testing it at local schools. “Many of our shoppers wanted to provide kids with organic food choices,” says Linda Boardman, brand manager for Whole Kids, “but a lot of traditional foods didn’t appeal to a kid’s palette.

“Whole kids peanut butter is a great example,” says Boardman. “A lot of natural peanut butter has a different texture, which a lot of shoppers love, but kids tend to like smoother and creamier peanut butters. We developed one to meet that need and it’s been selling like gangbusters—people love it.” It’s the same story for the Whole Kids pasta sauce, which was developed to be less spicy for more acute tastebuds. And some products are just plain targeted to kids’ use, like string cheese, frozen waffles and four-packs of flavored applesauce.

Organic Foods, Inc. has likewise formulated its adult-sized, 10-ounce wraps into twin packs, four ounces each to fit smaller hands and appetites. Three flavors will be launched this year: rice, veggies and tofu; white beans, rice and tomato; and black bean with corn, cheese and tomato. “There really wasn’t anything healthy or organic that’s a grab-and-go item,” says company spokesperson Donna Stacey.

This dearth has resulted in a plethora of products, designed to compete with more mainstream counterparts pulled from lunch sacks across the country. While Tupperware containers filled with goodies are a great way to cut down on packaging waste, convenience and reality often dictates individually wrapped, on-the-run snacks. Several have hit the market replete with catchy mascots and mottos.

Pavich has introduced individual snack packs of organic raisins (“100 percent natural fun”) and Happy Herberts, organic pretzel sticks (“spreading joy one crunch at a time”). Planet Harmony now boasts organic jelly beans, fruit snacks and gummy worms; Country Choice Naturals, organic animal cookies; Organic Foods, Inc., soy pops (much like Kix); and Earthbound Farms, serving-sized organic carrot sticks and salad bags, with all-natural dressing. For putting together those PB&J sandwiches, Alvarado St. Bakery offers the Ultimate Kids Bread, baked from organic whole-wheat flours and sweetened with local honey. No oil is added, and it’s guaranteed free of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.

Organic juices, too, fit in little lunch boxes for a no-mess drink. RW Knudsen has

organic apple juice, and Santa Cruz, organic grape, lemon, orange and tropical flavors. Both companies package in eight-ounce aseptic containers, the labels scribbled in a kid-like font.

Colorful packaging on EnviroKidz Organic Cereals, which boasts of being the planet’s first third-party certified organic cereal for kids, is also designed to catch a young eye. It is backed by education on organic foods and endangered species, and at least one percent of sales are donated to environmental and children’s charities. While Amazon Frosted Flakes, Gorilla Munch, Koala Crisp and Orangutan-O’s may seem reassuringly familiar, they contain fewer sweeteners per serving than leading brands and all are guaranteed GE-free.

Also capitalizing on comfort food, Annie’s Homegrown has organic mac-and-cheese and Grandma Millina’s Kitchen makes an organic version of good ol’ Spaghetti O’s. New Organics, perhaps the most ubiquitous brand to hit the stores for kids, recently launched 27 products aimed at ages two to six, under a label boasting the popular Richard Scarry children’s book characters. “We want to provide convenient, easy-to-use organics that mirror conventional counterparts like mac-and-cheese and hamburger helper,” says CEO, Anthony Zolezzi. “But we have to meet kids expectations.” That’s easier said than done. “As young as they are,” says Zolezzi, “they have taste-profiles that are already hard-wired.”