Can supplements offer a good top up for our children’s nutrition? Healthy Food Guide finds out.
There are now a huge range of supplements on the market aimed specifically at kids, with colourful, cartoonemblazoned bottles, looking like they’re filled with sweets.
Why are there supplements specific to kids?
Products for children have been reformulated for a number of reasons. Children can have trouble swallowing capsules or pills, so powders or chewable tablets make the product more accessible. Also, children require different amounts of vitamins and minerals to adults. Taking an adult supplement may give a child a toxic dose.
Multivitamins and multiminerals seem to be the most popular supplements to have been reformulated for children. But, there are also formulations for immunity, vitamin D and calcium for bone health and probiotics for gut health.
The last Children’s Nutrition Survey, from back in 2002, told us 5 per cent of five to 14-year-olds had taken a supplement in the 24 hours prior to questioning.
The two most common supplements were vitamin C and multivitamins with minerals. In a New Zealand study published in 2006, 24 per cent of European preschool children were reported to be taking supplements every day, with 39 per cent taking them weekly. Data from the US suggest one-third of US children now use supplements and, in Australia, it’s nearly one-quarter.
Do children need supplements?
It’s common to be concerned about whether kids are eating well enough. It can be tempting to think a multivitamin and/or multimineral may help cover for anything lacking in their diet.
Remember, younger children’s food intake can vary a lot over several weeks. One week they may eat mainly fruit, the next mainly carbohydrates. Looking over a period of about four weeks, their intake will often meet their requirements.
Supplements may give a sense of security, but they don’t have the same nutrition as healthy, whole food. Plant foods, especially, provide a range of health-promoting substances beyond vitamins and minerals.
The Ministry of Health recommends medical supervision before starting children on any supplements because of the risk of overdose or nutrient interactions. Like medication, getting the right supplement at the correct dose needs individual advice.
There are some times when a supplement may be needed. If you notice your child is regularly missing out on certain food groups, a supplement may be indicated for while you work on helping them increase their range of foods.
Kids’ multivitamin and multimineral supplements
A recent consensus on multivitamin and multimineral supplements came to the conclusion that using them in groups at risk of low intake or having increased needs, including children, can have health benefits. If you’re worried about your child’s intake, talk to your doctor or dietitian.
We might have lots of sunshine in New Zealand, but the further away from the equator we live, the less vitamin D-producing UVB light reaches the earth’s surface during winter. And, despite sunny days, vitamin D deficiency can be a problem for Kiwi children. Our skin produces vitamin D from sun exposure, but having darker skin, excessive sunscreen use and an indoor lifestyle all increase risk of not getting enough vitamin D. Talk to your GP or dietitian for advice.
What to watch out for
Even though they may look and taste like them, children’s supplements are not lollies. It’s important to explain this to your child and let them know they might get sick if they have the wrong amount.
Keep them out of direct sight. Iron overdoses from supplements have been fatal for children. Supplementing one specific nutrient may cause another to go out of balance. For example, a zinc and vitamin C supplement may cause copper levels to reduce. Your doctor or dietitian can discuss these interactions, and what they mean, with you.
It’s important to make sure your child is getting the amount directed on the packet. If they’re having several supplements, check to make sure they’re not doubling up on doses from different supplements.
Many kids’ supplements these days don’t contain sugar, but may contain sweeteners that could cause diarrhoea if too many are taken. Always check the label for advice and look at where else they may be getting these sweeteners from in their diet.
You might want to talk to a doctor or dietitian about supplements if your child:
- is on a dairy-free diet
- is following a vegan diet
- is a girl going through puberty
- is not eating well because of illness
- has increased nutritional needs because of a medical condition has a restricted food intake because of food preferences or allergies.