Child Nutrition—Status & Industry Trends In Asia-Pacific

Monday, November 8th, 2021

In the face of food security & safety challenges, supply disruptions, and the environmental impact of our food system, there is a greater need for innovative solutions for adequate child nutrition now more than ever. By Nadiah Ghazalli, Ph.D—Consultant, Chemicals, Materials & Nutrition Unit at Frost & Sullivan.


A recent report published by the United Nations, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, showed that healthy diets are still unattainable in many parts of the world, particularly for poor and struggling households. Compared to diets that only meet the minimum energy requirements, healthy diets are estimated to be five times more expensive. Among the Asia-Pacific population, this cost disparity places healthy diets out of reach for 1.9 billion people—more than half of the global share.

From a public health lens, this is an important gap to be addressed, especially among women and children—groups considered to be at higher risk for malnutrition due to their vulnerability and increased nutritional requirements. A poor diet that leads to malnutrition is the largest risk contributor to diseases around the world, with 70 percent of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases that are related to diets. 

Children younger than 5 years old have increased nutritional requirements to meet their physical and cognitive developmental needs. Their diets should come from a variety of sources, contain minimally processed foods, have balanced representation across different food groups, and meet, but not exceed, the energy requirements to maintain an active lifestyle. Meal diversity, frequency, and quantity are three major indicators used to monitor whether children’s diets in various countries meet the minimum requirements (Table 1). According to data from UNICEF, about half of the global population of children meets the minimum meal frequency (MMF). However, the prevalence of minimum dietary diversity (MDD) achievement, a measurement of the diet quality, is lower. Only 1 in 5 children in South Asia and 1 in 2 in Southeast Asia have an adequately diverse diet. The prevalence of children around the world that meet the minimum requirements of both quality and quantity is only 19 percent, with South Asia registering 12 percent and Southeast Asia at 14 percent. 

Table 1. Prevalence of children achieving key indicators for diet frequency, diversity, and quantity in selected regions

 Minimum Meal Frequency (MMF)Minimum Dietary Diversity (MDD)Minimum Acceptable Diet (MAD)
South Asia44 percent20 percent12 percent
Southeast Asia75 percent51 percent14 percent
Global 53 percent29 percent19 percent

Source: UNICEF, 2020

Notes: 

  • MMF = Percentage of children 6-23 months old who have consumed an adequate number of meals.
  • MDD = Percentage of children 6-23 months old who have consumed 5 of the 8 food groups in the previous 24 hours.
  • MAD = Percentage of children 6-23 months old who have achieved both MMF and MDD status.

Diet diversity is strongly correlated with location and household income. Children living in urban areas tend to have more diverse diets compared to rural due to a wider variety of foods, a higher concentration of higher-income households, and the different feeding practices among urban dwellers. While higher income generally correlates with higher prevalence of MMF and MDD in most countries, wealthier households in Thailand and Maldives registered lower prevalence of diet diversity. This might be due to the exposure to foods that are convenient but not necessarily healthy for children.

It is important to note that inadequate nutrition among children is not an exclusively low-income issue. Indeed, imbalance in the types of food consumed or excess consumption of salt, sugar and fat will also lead to unfavourable health outcomes. Rapid economic progress and urbanization have led to an increase in sedentary lifestyles and preference for convenience rather than nutritious meals. 

Closing The Gap

A concerted, systemic effort is needed to meet the nutritional requirements of growing children across the world. The food industry plays a key role in providing a variety of foods that are safe and nutritionally balanced; in improving affordability; and in ensuring access all year round. There is also higher awareness among parents and caregivers who strive to not only meet the nutritional needs of their children but are also concerned about the ingredients: the amount of salt, sugar and fat, the safety and provenance of the ingredients, and the organic status of fresh foods. 

Targeted Nutrition Through Fortification

In meeting children’s nutritional needs, a focus in Asia-Pacific has been on reducing the incidence of micronutrient deficiency. The Asian Congress of Nutrition in 2019 identified vitamin A, folic acid, zinc and iron as components that are lacking in infant and children nutrition. From the food industry standpoint, food fortification can help address this gap by incorporating ingredients with these vitamins and minerals into products. New Zealand recently mandated the incorporation of folic acid into non-organic wheat flour that is used for bread to address this deficiency, particularly among the Maori and Pacific women. Folic acid is necessary for neurological development, and deficiency in pregnant mothers is a major cause of birth defects. 

Functional foods have become a key category within the children’s food and beverage segment. Parents are increasingly concerned with whether their children are getting enough vitamins and minerals and are more willing to pay a premium for products that confer health benefits in addition to meeting energy requirements. Importantly, these products must also impart sensory qualities that appeal to children without excessive use of additives, preservatives, and sugar. Indeed, there’s still a strong perception held by APAC consumers that healthy and delicious are mutually exclusive. Food and ingredient manufacturers are continually investing in new product innovations that are healthy and pleasant to the senses. Breakfast cereals have seen several iterations in recent years as refined grains are now replaced with whole grains, and sugar and salt content is slashed by as much as 30 percent. Nestle’s cereals, for example, now contain 8 percent of the average daily intake of added sugars for children, in addition to being fortified with vitamins and minerals.

There is also increasing importance placed on developing products that are specific to children at various stages. This marked a shift from the practice of offering smaller, dialled-down versions of the adult products. There is a clear market demand for products tailored to children’s nutritional needs. According to a study conducted by Mintel, 70 percent of parents in China purchased children-specific dairy products. Sales of premium child nutrition products grew by almost 50 percent between 2018 and 2019. While China represents a bright spot in the market, the wider Asia-Pacific region only saw 5 percent of new products launched in 2019 aimed at children. This gap represents a growth opportunity for food companies to offer more tailored demographic nutrition products.  

Clean Eating

The socioeconomic shift in rapidly developing countries and resulting prevalence of obesity and diabetes have also led to the emergence of clean and “freedom foods”—products that are free from preservatives and additives and are based on ingredients that are pesticide-free, GMO-free, and undergo minimal processing. In the same vein, many families are opting for plant-based products rather than dairy and meat as a way to eat clean and ethically.   

Disruptive Technologies In Infant Nutrition

There are exciting innovations in the children’s nutrition space that can shift the landscape. On the heels of rapid progress in cellular agriculture technology producing beef, poultry, and seafood-based protein alternatives, the first cultured breast milk, Biomilq, was announced in June this year. The company aims to launch in the market within three years and is currently focusing on reducing the cost to be on par with formula milk. Mothers are encouraged to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life, and breast milk is considered by public health agencies and experts to be a complete source of nutrition. While the company concedes Biomilq is not intended to replace breastfeeding but rather supplement it, it notes that there is a market niche of non-biological parents, mothers who are unable to lactate, and babies with cow milk allergies. Indeed, mimicking the natural composition of breast milk has been the subject of intense research. According to Frost & Sullivan’s Growth Opportunities report on the infant formula ingredients market that covered market size and forecast, trends analysis, and competitive landscape, there is still a strong demand for infant formula, particularly in Asia-Pacific, due to the growing population and increasing rate of women in the workforce.

Key Takeaway

In the face of food security and safety challenges, supply disruptions brought about by the pandemic, and environmental impact of the food system, there is a greater need for innovative solutions now more than ever. Engagement between stakeholders in the food industry, public healthcare system, as well as providers of educational and social services is essential to ensuring that children’s nutritional needs are met. Importantly, the pandemic has underlined the need for improving the resilience of the food system worldwide and ensuring children’s access to healthy, balanced and adequate meals is preserved. 

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