The vegetarian transformation may begin as a child sobs through the tragic demise of Bambi's mother. Shortly after the tears are dried, it hits home that every piece of meat on a plate or bun came from some animal's mother, father, son or daughter. The child announces, "I'm never going to eat meat again." Unfortunately, this announcement may not be accompanied by a newfound craving for tofu, quinoa and greens.
The child has joined a growing cohort of young vegetarians. Many children are born into vegetarian families. Still others fall in step with their vegetarian peers. However they become vegetarians, young people share a common set of nutritional requirements, and like most children, may have food preferences at odds with their health needs.
As a growing hip trend among children and teens, vegetarianism creates a corresponding need in the marketplace. Parents appreciate any help natural foods producers can offer as they struggle to provide for the nutritional needs of growing children while eschewing flesh foods and being confined within the limited tastes of the age group.
The good news is that a vegetarian diet can provide the necessary nutrients. According to the American Dietetic Association, both vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including early childhood and teens.
The hitch is that it takes specialized nutritional knowledge and careful planning to ensure that vegetarian kids meet their nutritional needs. The more restrictive the diet, the greater the risk of dietary deficiencies. As Leo Galland, M.D., points out in his book Super Immunity For Kids (Delacorte Press, 1989), casual vegetarianism can create nutrient deficiencies and unhealthy children. In fact, a letter published in the March 23 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine by researchers from the Groupe
Hopitalier Pitie-Salpetriere in Paris strongly recommends supplementation for vegans, based on deficiencies they have observed, especially of B12.
Like adults, children and teens need nutrients to maintain cells, tissues and life processes. In addition, they need nutrients to support growth and development. Certain nutrients require particular attention in vegetarian diets and are especially beneficial when added to foods targeted for vegetarian kids.
Yet it takes much more than nutritional knowledge to ensure that children are properly nourished. Unfortunately, parents of vegetarian kids face the same problem most parents face: many kids do not voluntarily make healthy food choices. For example, one study revealed that across the board, only one in 14 children ate the five servings of fruits and vegetables recommended daily by the American Dietetic Association.
Most entrees for preteens are actually purchased by parents, according to Steven Prendergast, manager of Mother's Market and Kitchen in Irvine, Calif. He adds that though parents put the groceries on the counter and pull out the cash, in the aisles buying decisions are heavily influenced by children. The most successful products, he says, appeal both to parents who read the ingredients list and to kids who are drawn by appealing packaging.
Envirokids Cereals, by Nature's Path, have met outstanding success using packaging featuring vibrant colors, leafy jungles and plumed birds. Each package features pictures, information about likeable vegetarian animals such as gorillas, and environmental messages. "We try to make it cool for the kids to want an organic cereal," says Arran Stephens, president and founder of Nature's Path.
However appealing the packaging and marketing, the kids' palates rule once the food hits the table. Both as a parent and the father of Envirokids cereals, Stephens has made some realistic concessions, for example to kids' preference for sweeter cereals.
According to Matthew Koch, president of Road's End Organics in Morrisville, Vermont, the younger the children, the more receptive they seem. Very young children often like his healthy vegan products better than their vegan parents do. Unlike adults and older children, they taste them without preferences and expectations entrenched by years of eating animal or junk foods.
With older children, says Koch, it becomes more important to mimic the shape, appearance, and texture of the foods kids see in commercials and on their friends' plates. If they are vegetarian or vegan converts, the more the foods resemble former favorites the better hence the popularity of veggie hot dogs and burgers.
Koch remembers a young daughter of vegan parents, in love with Grandma's supermarket macaroni and cheese, who refused to eat Road's End Semolina Shells and Cheese. Her mother used natural red coloring to achieve the bright orange look of the supermarket product. "One drop, and the daughter started eating it like there was no tomorrow," Koch says.
Another challenge is time. A parent with two jobs and four kids needs help managing life in the fast lane without fast-food burgers and chicken. Amy Berliner's parents were armed with nutritional knowledge, but as Andy Berliner explains: "We started having less time to grow and prepare natural foods from scratch. We looked for convenience foods and found there was nothing healthy out there." The Berliners' solutions was to found Amy's Kitchen in Santa Rosa, Calif. "We figured there were a lot of other people like ourselves who really want natural, organic, good foods but don't have the time anymore to do it all."
Mother's Markets' Prendergast notes that teen vegetarians make many of their own purchases. And greater independence can add another challenge to nourishing young vegetarians, warns Lori Winterstein, R.D., of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif. "Some adolescents may think it's OK to eat anything as long as it's not from an animal. Therefore they may tend to eat more junk than [younger] children because their parents don't have as much control." In other words, teen vegetarians are not so different from other teens.
Manufacturers can make a valuable contribution by offering young vegetarians healthy fast-food options with kid appeal. Winterstein says, "Most kids love bean burritos, veggie sub sandwiches, tofu hot dogs and vegetarian pizza." Most suppliers agree that vegetarian kids like comfort foods such as breads and pastas, and such foods can be made nutritious.
Amy Berliner is now 12. "We always have a house full of kids over," says her father. "They love macaroni and cheese, cheese ravioli, cheese pizza, and veggie burgers. Kids prefer plainer, less spicy foods, although they like burritos and cheese enchiladas with mildly spicy sauces."
It takes more than visual and taste appeal to satisfy health-conscious, well-informed vegetarian parents and teens. For example, they may choose vegetarian foods in part to avoid the antibiotics and hormones common in meats. These customers will prefer dairy products and eggs that are guaranteed free of these substances, whether as whole foods or as ingredients in prepared dishes. They may avoid soy products that use the neurotoxin MSG (monosodium glutamate) for flavoring.
Winterstein also points out that to be healthy, soy products should use ingredients as close as possible to the original source, such as beans, tofu or tempeh. She cautions that "Highly processed soy products such as isolates and powders are not digested well and cause gas and bloating, which can eventually lead to more serious digestive problems and allergies."
While some young people are health conscious, many parents end up scheming and plotting to nourish kids without their conscious cooperation. If food suppliers are to aid this conspiracy with seductive packaging of nutrients, they must know their customers. They are vegetarians; they are kids.
Barbara Keeler has focused on child nutrition as a journalist and contributor to nutrition, child development, parenting, health and science textbooks.
Dr. Laura Thompson, Family Nutritionist and Naturopathic Endocrinologist has a nationwide practice by phone, and locally in Carlsbad, California. Call for in-home testing info, 800-608-5602.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products suggested, are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please check with your health care practitioner for your best health options.