Child Obesity Rates Plateau: New Chance for Food Manufacturers to Make an Impact RELEASED AT THE 2012 IFT ANNUAL MEETING & FOOD EXPO

A plateau in childhood obesity rates following a 20-year increase offers food manufacturers an opportunity to review successful strategies as well as consider new ideas for providing healthy, good-tasting options for the next generation, a scientific panel said during a symposium at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

June 28, 2012

LAS VEGAS – A plateau in childhood obesity rates following a 20-year increase offers food manufacturers an opportunity to review successful strategies as well as consider new ideas for providing healthy, good-tasting options for the next generation, a scientific panel said during a symposium at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

The panelists included Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington; Julie Mennella, PhD., member and director emeritus, Monell Science Apprenticeship Program; Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences and the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutrition at Penn State University; and Britt Burton-Freeman, PhD, MS, director of the Center for Nutrition Research at the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics found about one-third of U.S. adults and almost 17 percent of children are considered obese. While that still translates into more than 78 million adults and more than 12 million children, it does reflect stabilization after rapid increases in the 1980s and 1990s. The panel agreed this plateau may be the result of several actions, including additional food labeling, consumer education, and a natural leveling off after years of increases. At the same time, they stressed that there is still work to be done to reduce the current obesity rate and prevent additional spikes.

“This may only be a temporary respite, giving us a bit of breathing space to think about solutions and maybe consider that the food industry did something right and things aren’t as dire as they used to be,” said Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. 

When considering the next steps, Drewnowski pointed to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showing the majority of calories in the American diet (66 percent) come from the grocery store, as do most added sugars (71 percent). This means that while the food industry already has made positive changes to impact childhood nutrition, continuing efforts should be aimed at the meals and snacks purchased at the store and served at home, rather than targeting restaurants or vending machines, which provide far less of the daily caloric intake.

Rolls said her research shows kids, like adults, eat more food when given a larger portion size. She cited a study in which preschoolers were given large portions of fruit and subsequently increased their fruit intake by 70 percent.

For vegetables, that figure was about 40 percent; indicating work needs to be done to increase the desirability and palatability of vegetables. One strategy she said showed promise was providing a large serving of vegetables at the start of the meal, before anything else is on the plate. Children tended to eat those vegetables, such as raw carrots or a serving of tomato soup, and still eat the rest of the meal, including the vegetable served with the main course. Another successful strategy was “hiding” vegetables by mixing them into good-tasting foods, such as baking with pureed pumpkin or zucchini.

“Obviously kids need to learn about vegetables and taste vegetables on their own,” Rolls said. “But think of this as recipe modification. It’s a strategy that works and I think we need to try more.”

While increasing fruits and vegetables is a worthy goal, the panelists agreed that manufactured foods play a significant role as well. Burton-Freeman said the need is especially great for more nutritious, less caloric snack foods.

Some examples she gave are using technology to modify ingredients and enhance satiety, using encapsulation techniques to fortify snacks with more nutrients, and developing ways to replace high-calorie ingredients, such as fat, while still producing good-tasting foods.

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