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HMPRG Board Member, Geeta Maker-Clark MD, Featured In Chicago Tribune Article on Healthy Food Options

Health & Medicine Policy Research Group (HMPRG)
September 14, 2010

Download the article from The Chicago Tribune

Geeta Maker-Clark and her husband Todd prepare dinner and next-daylunches for their kids, from left, Devika, 2, Sachin, 5, and Sahaara,7, in their Evanston home on Tuesday.(Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / August 30, 2010)

What's in the bag?

Parents, kids, manufacturers rethink lunch

By Emily Bryson York, Tribune reporter

10:39 PM CDT, September 12, 2010

With back-to-school season in full swing, busy parents aretrying to find convenient yet nutritious ways to hand their kids ahealthy lunch. And that has the attention of food manufacturers.

Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., Campbell's Soup Co. and ConAgraFoods Inc. are some of the food companies trying to show that packagedfood can deliver on price, convenience, taste and health. From Kraft'sLunchables to ConAgra's Chef Boyardee, food manufacturers arereformulating their products in an effort to lure more parents.

Some parents, with memories of what packaged foods looked like in theirchildhoods, need more convincing. Nutritionists are more skeptical, andsome doctors say that substitutes and fillers in reduced-calorie foodscan be worse for kids than full-fat versions.

Still, the demand for convenient packaged food that can count towarddaily fruit or vegetable requirements is increasing. Experts say that'sdriven not just by moms and dads but by kids. The major packaged-food companies have launched products with reduced fat, calories or sodium for fall.

Darin Dugan, senior director of marketing for Kraft's Lunchables, saidthat while kids will opt for tastier options just like everyone else,they've also got an eye on what's good for them.

"Moms and kids are looking for fresher, more wholesome, less-processedlunch options," he said. "While kids aren't as nutritionally aware asmoms, kids will tell you they know foods that are good for them and notso good for them."

Lunchables recently underwent sweeping changes to packaging andadvertising, which came on the heels of product reformulations that cutcalories, fat and sodium and also removed high fructose corn syrup frommost of the line. The result has been dramatic sales gains that thecompany describes as about 10 percent. According to grocery scanner datafrom SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm,Lunchables sales increased 6 percent over the 52 weeks ended August 8,to $578 million. IRI data doesn't include Wal-Mart or club stores.

Lunchables is just one example. While Gen Y parents may have had baloneyon white bread, chips, a juice box and a snack cake, for instance,their kids may be more likely to have sandwich on wheat bread, fruit,pretzels or yogurt, and maybe a piece of candy.

For fall, in response to the shifting mandate, ConAgra's Chef Boyardeebrand is promoting whole-grain pastas, while General Mills' Yoplait isadvertising Go-Gurt,a yogurt that can go into a lunchbox frozen and bethawed by lunch time.

Campbell's is pushing its fruit-and-vegetable drinks, V8 V-Fusion, whichoffer a full serving each of fruits and vegetables. The idea is tosneak vegetable nutrients into children's diets with a sweet-tastingbeverage.

Some doctors and nutritionists argue that this strategy misses thepoint. The foods are, in short, side-stepping opportunities to eat wholefoods that have fewer calories and more fiber, they say.

Geeta Maker-Clark, a family physician with NorthShore UniversityHealthSystem, said she sometimes views the processed-food industry as"the enemy" of her work.

"They market in such a way as to make the food seem irresistible andimpossibly convenient for parents, and they really sort of create asituation in which it's easier and cheaper for parents to choose whatthey're offering versus something that's clearly going to benefit theirchildren," she said.

Highly processed food, she added, can be particularly dangerous forchildren with inflammatory conditions like asthma. "(It) can worsentheir problems," she said. "And I don't think most people know that."

Better-for-you updates of classic processed food are generally focusedon reducing fat, calories and sodium, and sometimes removing suchingredients as high fructose corn syrup. Products that meet establishedcriteria may be promoted within grocery stores as a "better for you"option.

In the absence of universal guidelines, the packaged-food industrycreated a "Smart Choices" labeling system, in an effort to denotehealthier foods. The FDA shut down that program last fall and is in theprocess of establishing a federally-regulated standard.

From a business perspective, however, healthier makeovers often seem toboost sales. For instance, Lunchables discontinued its Maxxed Out line,which had larger portions and higher calories. Lunchables also launched asub-segment dubbed "Lunchables with water," which features white-meatchicken and turkey, crackers with whole grain, mandarin oranges,unsweetened applesauce or sugar-free Jell-O, and, of course, water.

Northfield-based Kraft has also revisited packaging and advertising.Kraft ditched movie tie-ins on packaging, and nutritional information ismore prominent. Most Lunchables trays are now clear, because moms saidthey wanted to be able to see the food inside. Because the plastictrays aren't recyclable, Kraft moved to avoid "green" criticism bypartnering with TerraCycle to convert used Lunchables containers intolunch boxes and pencil cases.

New ads focus on kids' potential, and an updated logo stacks the words"Lunch" and "ables." One advertisement, depicting a young boy doing achalk drawing, says, "Even da Vinci started somewhere." The ad ispromoting a cheese-pizza lunch, with a side of mandarin oranges.

Katie Nahrwold, a mother of four who lives in Kenilworth, said she seeslots of Lunchables boxes when she volunteers in the school lunchroom.She added that some parents get it for their children as a Friday treat.

"I think it's easy for working parents just to grab and go," she said.She buys the meals occasionally when in the grocery store with her kidsat lunchtime, but they often eat the treat and leave the rest. "Itreminds me of those old TV dinners," she said.

Juliet Berger-White, of Evanston, said she doesn't buy Lunchablesbecause her daughter wouldn't like everything in the container. It'seasier for her to assemble a lunch piecemeal. For the first day ofkindergarten, she packed a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, pretzels,organic baby carrots, a plum, water and an organic juice box. Most days,Berger-White adds a small treat, like a piece of chocolate.

"I think it's fair to say we have to strengthen our relationship withmoms and with kids," said Lunchables' Dugan. He added that changes tothe products are altering parents' perceptions in Kraft focus groups. Ofthe families tracked over the last year, 68 percent said Lunchablesquality has improved , and 89 percent like the new package.

"Moms told us they really wanted to see the food," Dugan said, addingthat "kids like what we're doing, and they understand that the move tofresher, less-processed foods is the right thing to do."

Nutritionists are still skeptical. "I always applaud when companiesreduce calories, sodium and fat," said Toby Smithson, a registereddietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Sheadded, however, that Lunchables' sodium levels "still tend to be high,"and while improvements are a good thing, "we're not quite there yet."

For some families, home-made lunches are the only way to go. Maker-Clarksaid that for her children, ages 7 and 5, she has a handful of lunchoptions that create variety and make her kids feel good about eatinghealthy. One day may feature a whole-wheat pita with almond butter,banana and unsweetened coconut flakes, celery with peanut butter andraisins, or cheese and crackers with grapes and a hard-boiled egg. Sidesmay include berries or Stonyfield Farm's YoBaby yogurt.

"School lunch is a great opportunity," Maker-Clark said of getting kidsto eat healthy. "If they're having a great lunch, and (other) kids seeit, they have a sense of pride around what they're eating. That's workedfor my kids. They take pride in their great lunches, and so they tellother kids about them."