Maternal cravings for good munchies

Fortified juices, milkshakes and, now, power bars are concocted for expectant and nursing women

September 21, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

Two years ago, during a walk through their Guilford neighborhood with their three sons, Beth and Scott Vincent hit upon an idea that they thought was so great, it begged for follow-up.

Beth Vincent had lamented to her husband about her lack of time to prepare healthy snacks during her last pregnancy, and that inconvenience caused a light bulb to go on: "power bars" for the pregnant. The couple decided to create vitamin-packed alternatives to junk food for expectant moms as well as for nursing mothers and women preparing to become pregnant.

They spent hours researching and talking with doctors and nutritionists. They sank in their savings, found a manufacturer, put together taste-testing focus groups, incorporated "Vincent Foods LLC" and - in April - sent their bundle out into the world: the "Oh Mama!" bar, in chocolate peanut butter, frosted raspberry and yogurt honey.

FOR THE RECORD - In a chart accompanying a story in Wednesday's Business section about nutrition bars for pregnant women, the omega-3 fatty acid "DHA" was incorrectly described as a blood thinner. It does not have the blood-thinning qualities associated with other omega-3 fatty acids.
The Sun regrets the error.

That was a glorious day - until they saw a news release that afternoon from Ensure, part of Abbott Laboratories' Ross Products Division, announcing the brand was about to launch its "Healthy Mom" nutritionally boosted bars and shakes.

"It was a bit of a disappointment," Beth Vincent said.

But it wasn't the only one. Around that same time, a Florida mother and entrepreneur launched a "Mommy Munchies" nutrition line and two business school friends from California brought the "Bellybar" to market.

Seemingly overnight, nutritional foods aimed at some 4 million pregnant and nursing mothers in America, most with names as cute as a newborn, have arrived on the market. Special snack bars and shakes have begun showing up in supermarkets and maternity stores. They're the latest niche in the multibillion-dollar maternity industry, which encompasses everything from apparel to pregnancy tests.

With many consumers saying they're too busy to prepare homemade nutritious meals and snacks, or take the time to balance their diets, the market has given rise to "fortified" or "functional" foods throughout the grocery store aisles: Orange juice with calcium added for strong bones. Candy laced with illness-busting vitamin C. Cereals juiced with energizing iron. Numerous sports drinks and bars for athletes, shakes for the elderly, even healthy snacks for dieting. But the pregnancy market was, until recently, a mostly untapped frontier.

"It's a further example of the evolution and maturation of healthy, nutritious products targeted at specific demographic groups," said Steve French, a managing partner at Natural Marketing Institute, a research firm outside Philadelphia. "I think it aligns very well. This particular demographic group obviously has different nutritional and development needs."

For a long time, many pregnant women have taken prenatal vitamins or other supplements to boost nutrient levels. Getting such supplements from a snack, such as a shake or a sweetly satisfying chocolate bar, seems a natural next step - particularly among a group known for its cravings.

"If women are grabbing something now, they might be grabbing a Snickers or crackers. They might be grabbing something that doesn't have a nutritional value," said Leslie Sagalowicz, who with former Northwestern University business school classmate Meredith Lincoln developed the Bellybar.

The new nutritional snacks for pregnant women all cost between $2 and $3 apiece, have between 150 and 200 calories (doctors recommend pregnant women add about 300 calories to their daily diet) and are beefed up with extra iron and folate, as well as calcium and multiple other nutrients. The makers all contend it is unrealistic to expect women to cart around baggies of carrots for snack attacks or to only face a salad when a pregnant woman really wants something decadent.

For more than two centuries, doctors have linked the eating habits of mothers-to-be with the health of their children. For a long time, the focus was almost entirely on a woman's weight gain. The prevailing recommendation was that mothers should limit their food intake, in part so births were easier: Less food was equated with smaller babies.

By the 1930s, women were instructed to restrict salt intake to lessen fluid retention, although that sent their levels of sodium, a necessary nutrient, dangerously low. In the 1950s, women were paradoxically told to eat more but gain little weight.

By the 1980s, researchers began focusing on the vitamin and mineral requirements of pregnant women. For the average woman, the recommended daily allowance of folic acid, or folate, is about 400 micrograms. For the pregnant woman, that jumps to between 500 and 600 micrograms. Iron requirements leap to 27 milligrams from 18. Deficiencies can lead to poor fetal development.

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