Children’s Eating Behaviors: What About Snacking?

childhood: an important time to build food preferences and establish healthy snacking habits

Childhood is a key period where children grow and develop. It is also an important time to build food preferences and establish healthy eating patterns. Habits acquired during childhood shape adult dietary habits.

Dietary patterns of children aged 3 to 12 years generally consist of three main meals and some in-between meal eating occasions. Having a snack in-between main meals has been part of local habits for a long time and holds a special place in children’s eating habits.

National dietary guidelines suggest that proposing some snacks in addition to main meals to children who have limited digestive volume could help them meet their energy and nutrient needs throughout the day. These snacks should be adapted to children’s energy and nutrient needs so that they don’t unbalance their global diet (CWT, 2010; PNNS, 2004).

mondelēz international encourages consumers to snack mindfully as part of its Call For Well-being

At Mondelēz International, we know that as the world’s largest snack company, we have a critical role to play in inspiring consumers to snack mindfully. Mindful snacking is about eating with intention; and being more conscious about what and how much we are consuming. To help people snack mindfully, Mondelēz International undertakes a holistic approach to transform its portfolio by:

  • offering more Better Choice products (products that meet a stricter nutrition profile comparing to existing alternatives
  • expanding the portfolio to include products that have fewer ingredients or are allergen-free; and
  • increasing its offering of portion control options that are individually wrapped and are less than 200 calories. To improve the overall nutrition profile of its portfolio, the company has also established global nutrition targets for 2020 to increase whole grains and reduce saturated fat and sodium in its recipes.

Mondelēz International’s ingredient and technologies experts have developed expertise over the years to overcome some technological barriers linked to the improvement of fat profiles, the inclusion of whole grains, reduction of sodium and sugar. The company follows a stepwise approach to improve the nutritional profile of its recipes without impairing their organoleptic qualities that have been appreciated by consumers for decades.

As an example, this enables Mondelēz International to offer biscuits for children with improved nutritional profile without changing the taste they like. These biscuits can be part of a balanced snack when eaten with a dairy product and/or a fruit as suggested in some national dietary guidelines for snacking.

Simply put: by developing new products, improving the nutrition profile of its portfolio, and empowering consumers with clear information — including calories front-of-pack — Mondelēz International can help people become more mindful about what they’re eating.

childhood, a key period for the future healthy adult

Diet is a key factor to children’s growth, well-being and development. It contributes to their current and future health. From childhood to the pre-teens, children’s energy and nutritional requirements are high with respect to their weight (see Figure 1). They have to cover requirements needed for growth in addition to requirements to maintain basal metabolism and physical activity. They therefore need a nutrient-rich diet which provides the energy necessary to their proper development.


Figure 1: Comparison between energy requirements for adults and for children aged 3-12 years
Source: Adapted from WHO/FAO, 2001

From 3 years, children’s macronutrient requirements are similar to that of adults. Fat requirements, which are higher at birth, actually decrease after the age of 3. According to the recommendations in the different countries in the world, 3 to 12-year-olds should have intakes of carbohydrates between 45% and 75% of daily calorie intake, proteins between 10% and 30% and fats between 15% and 35% (WHO, 2003; WHO, 2007; WHO, 2010). Saturated fats should not exceed 10% of daily energy intake (WHO, 2010).

Certain nutrients play a specific role in children. During childhood, in addition to the basic nutritional needs, there are nutritional requirements specific to children’s growth and development. In several countries, it is recommended that children have sufficient alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA) intakes as they contribute to children’s normal growth and development (EFSA, 2008 a). Calcium plays an essential role in bone and teeth growth and health. Sufficient calcium intake is needed to build bone mass gradually and to reach the bone mass peak which is a determining factor of bone mineral status in adulthood. Vitamin D is essential for absorption of calcium and for maintaining constant blood calcium levels (EFSA, 2008 b). During growth, children’s blood volume increases, thus increasing iron requirements. Iron is essential for carrying oxygen in the blood and muscles (EFSA, 2015). Insufficient intakes of iron and vitamin D are the most common ones in normally-developing children (Suskind, 2009). In some countries, especially developing countries, children’s growth and development are strongly affected by insufficient vitamin and mineral intakes or even deficiencies. Vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc deficiencies are especially a major health concern in these countries (Saleem and Bhutta, 2015).

It is important to have a proper diet to meet nutritional requirements. To achieve this, national dietary recommendations are provided to the general public, in the form of key messages or food pyramids, and are disseminated through information campaigns. These recommendations aim to provide simple guidelines for adopting a varied, balanced diet, and some are children-specific (Ministry of Health Malaysia, 2013). The World Health Organization (WHO), in its global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, recommends for global population (WHO, 2004):

  • Achieving energy balance and a healthy weight,
  • Limiting energy intake from total fats,
  • Shifting fat consumption away from saturated fats to unsaturated fats and towards the elimination of trans fatty acids,
  • Increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, and legumes, whole grains and nuts,
  • Limiting intake of free sugars,
  • Limiting salt (sodium) consumption from all sources and ensuring that salt is iodized.

meal patterns of children over the globe

Meal patterns are influenced by lifestyles, dietary habits and cultures. Few studies investigating children’s meal patterns are available all over the world. In adults, a survey was conducted between 2012 and 2014 in nine countries (France, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Russia, China, Brazil and Middle-East countries) on a sample of 1,000 adults in each country (TNS Sofres, Food 360 study, 2014). The study shows that even if the time and composition of eating occasions differ from one country to another, the pattern of three main meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) is predominant in many countries (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Percentage of adults eating breakfast, lunch and dinner every day
Source: Adapted from TNS Sofres, Food 360 study, 2014

However, main meals do not seem to be the only eating occasions of the day. In the same study, 90% of people surveyed said they eat in-between meals at least once per day (TNS Sofres, Food 360 study, 2014). The same behavior is observed in children who, depending on the country, eat in-between meals once, twice or even three times a day (Table 1). Children’s meal patterns are based on those of adults who are acting as models of eating behavior (Savage et al., 2007). In-between meal eating takes place in the morning, in the afternoon and sometimes even in the evening. The type of food eaten differs according to culture. National surveys, longitudinal and transversal studies on dietary behavior and food consumption refer to those moments as "snacking occasions" or "in-between meal eating occasions". Most of these studies consider as "snacking occasions" every food or drink consumption happening outside of main meals. Table 1 gives an overview of the number of in-between meal eating occasions in children aged 3 to 12 years across the globe.

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Table 1: Actual snacking practices in children aged 3 to 12 years across the globe

how can children benefit from structured/mindful snacking?

The words "snacking" and "snacks" have different meanings according to culture, and may reflect different types of consumption. The terms "merienda" in Latin America and Spain, "goûter" in France, or even "второй завтрак" in Russia are words referring to in-between meal eating occasions that are part of local dietary habits. Different words are used over the globe to describe these traditional in-between meal eating occasions.

It is important to differentiate unstructured snacking from structured/mindful snacking. Unstructured snacking consists of random eating occasions, not triggered by hunger but subjected to external influences. These eating occasions are unplanned, and the foods consumed may be of poor nutritional quality and high energy density, which may lead to an unbalanced diet and poor energy balance. Structured snacking consists of increasing eating frequency by fractioning meals, without changing the total quantity of energy ingested, and answers to a physiological requirement.It's about being more mindful and conscious about what and how much one is consuming, and when.

Where the consumption context is inappropriate (e.g. eating in front of the television), where consumption takes place in response to environmental stimuli, in the absence of hunger, and where foods or drinks consumed are of poor nutritional quality, snacking may increase energy intake and lead to an unbalanced diet, leading ultimately to weight gain (Bellisle, 2014).

However, structured or mindful snacking can be interesting for certain groups of the population such as children, who have high nutritional requirements with respect to their weight, and limited digestive volume. It can be used to more easily adjust energy intake to requirements (Bellisle, 2014). Generally, children tend to be more attentive to their appetite and make up for their dietary intake more efficiently than adults (Birch et al., 1991; Fisher et al., 2000). In healthy subjects, including children, snacking could even be a source of quality nutrition (e.g. fruits, whole grains, fibers) (Deheeger et al., 1997; Hampl et al., 2003; Kerr et al., 2009). As a result, structured snacking could be beneficial for children provided it is part of a balanced diet and does not add to their daily energy intakes.

national nutritional recommendations for in-between meal eating occasions

In-between meal eating occasions are an integral part of dietary patterns, and recommendations exist to ensure they are nutritionally balanced. National authorities provide advice on healthy snacking, which does not unbalance children’s diet and give suggestions for balanced snacks. In many countries worldwide the proportion of daily energy intake that the snack should represent is around 10% per snacking occasion. As variety and diversity are essential in a balanced diet, it is recommended to include several elements from different food groups (cereal foods, dairy foods, fruits, vegetables). Table 2 lists some local recommendations on healthy snacking and suggestions for snacks.

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Table 2: National guidelines about children’s snacking

Many categories of foods can be part of balanced snacks and among them, the large biscuit family.

how biscuits can fit with mindful snacking?

Three main ingredients go into biscuit-making. They are flour, fat and sugar. The different proportions of ingredients used to make biscuits result in many different types, tastes, textures and nutritional compositions (Denis, 2011). Biscuits generally have low water content meaning they can be stored for some time. They are energy dense, and their density varies according to the category. A qualitative benchmark of the French market in 2008 revealed that on average, the energy provided by biscuits reaches 100 kcal for 30 g of gingerbread, 130 kcal for 30 g of dry biscuits, 140 kcal for 30 g of chocolate brownie and 160 kcal for 30 g of puff pastry biscuits (Denis, 2011). Not all biscuits have therefore the same nutritional impact on children’s diet.

When flour is made from whole grains, biscuits can contribute to the recommended whole grain and fiber intakes. The use of fats of good nutritional quality can also help improve the lipid profile consumed by children. In France for instance, pastries and biscuits are an important source of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially alpha-linolenic acid) in children and adolescents aged 3 to 17 years (ONIDOL, 2015).

It is important to ensure that biscuits are taken at set times, so as not to cause imbalance in children’s overall diet. Snack suggestions are issued by national bodies to ensure they are nutritionally balanced and some include biscuits as the cereal food (Table 3). By choosing biscuits with adapted nutritional profile and portion size, as part of a balanced snack, it is possible to satisfy children’s energy and nutritional needs while keeping the taste they like.

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Table 3: Examples of balanced snacks suggested in dietary guidelines including biscuits or not


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