The preteen market is anything but child's play. Tweens have proven that their spending power, and tapping into their psyche has paid off for companies that hone products for this increasingly attuned group.

By Julie Besonen

Tweens, the demographic that falls between being a child and a teen (generally eight to 12 years old), number 20 million strong in the U.S. Sociologists describe it as a time period when kids become more socially aware and brand savvy and try to cultivate a sophisticated self-image as they aspire to teenhood. They also have spending power.

Studies show tweens’ buying influence could amount to as much as $40 billion a year. These preteens already have authoritative opinions on clothing, music and movies. When it comes to food, many have discerning palates and a concern for organics, environmentalism and warding off obesity. Market-research publisher Packaged Facts cites booming sales of food and beverages for preteens as evidence that the market is on the brink of an even bigger breakthrough, predicting for 2010–2015 a growth of 40 percent. In 2010 Packaged Facts found that $4 billion worth of the preteen food market contained a better-for-you element, in concert with the growing health-consciousness of the food industry as a whole.

Rudy Chavez, marketing manager for Lazy Acres, a specialty store in affluent Santa Barbara, Calif., supports that finding. “We have very knowledgeable customers with regard to the food they are buying,” he says. “And it’s apparent that their kids are learning to eat healthier, too, by their choices in the aisles.”

Getting the Message

While this age group’s out-of-pocket expenditures are dependent on allowances or cash gifts, tweens can be in the driver’s seat when telling adults what they want. “Kids who are nutrition-savvy are very noisy about it,” notes Susan Gross, a mother of an 11-year-old girl in Brooklyn, N.Y. “My daughter used to be more influenced by ads on TV, and I got a constant barrage of, ‘Mom, can we get that?’”

Now that Gross’ daughter is a tween, her peers carry more clout than commercials. “She and her friends look at the nutrition breakdown on products, at the sugar and carb content,” Gross says. “They’re making choices in a pretty informed way and watching each other, what they eat and don’t eat. My daughter will note when another kid is not a healthy eater and comment on it. Never in a million years would I have done that at her age.”

While peer pressure plays a role, this demographic is also an age when kids are trying to carve out their own identity. “They’re incredibly aware, more than previous generations,” says Nicole Bernard Dawes, co-founder and CEO of Late July Organic Snacks and the mother of a 9-year-old boy. “Food is a hotter topic these days; you see it on TV, in pop culture, and the kids are getting old enough to understand consequences, whereas before it was in one ear and out the other.”

Dawes’ company, based in Cape Cod, Mass., has seen an 80 percent jump in sales over last year, spurred by the popularity of kid-friendly foods such as Late July Organic Mini Cheddar Cheese Sandwich Crackers and Organic Mini Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers. Its recent rollout of three multigrain, organic snack chips—Sea Salt by the Seashore, Mild Green Mojo and Dude Ranch—have been breakout hits. Dawes has seen her son and his friends taking an interest in nutrition, cooking and gardening through school programs, but another factor reigns supreme: “If it’s not delicious they absolutely won’t eat it,” she declares.

Dawes credits Jamie Oliver, the British chef and star of ABC’s Food Revolution, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative for getting the message out about the dangers of obesity. “Talking about it is the first step toward change,” she says. “They’ve made healthy choices part of the national collective conversation.”

Oliver, a father of four (two of them tweens), and Obama, mother of Malia, 14, and Sasha, 10, have sounded the alarm that childhood obesity rates have tripled in the U.S. over the past three decades. Today, nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese, and the numbers are even higher in African American and Hispanic communities. A decades-long medical study in Europe recently concluded that obese teens are as likely as smokers to die prematurely, due to diabetes and heart disease. This generation of children is the first that is expected to live shorter lives than their parents.

Michelle Rowe, a registered nurse in Toledo, Ohio, mother of three and author of the blog, says she is alarmed by the epidemic of type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea and depression she’s seeing in young children. “From a nursing aspect, it’s scary,” she admits. “I think kids want to have a choice and I see a lot of them trying to eat healthier. The message is reaching them.”

Two products Rowe feeds her own children are Greek-style Chobani yogurt (for which Rowe guest-blogs on that company’s website) and Clif Kid ZBars. The snack bars are 95 percent organic, made with 8 to 11 grams of whole grains and 12 essential vitamins and minerals, and contain no high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives or trans fats. “With ZBars the calories [120] are more in line with what the children in that age group need,” she explains. “Portion size is important. Kids don’t need supersizing.”

Chobani recently introduced its Champions line, the first Greek yogurt geared toward kids. Available in two flavors, VeryBerry and Honey-Nana, it provides a dose of protein, vitamin D and calcium and no synthetic growth hormones, preservatives or artificial sweeteners.

“I know they might not like all the same things I do, but I try to be a role model for them,” Rowe says. “They see me eating Chobani and think it’s cool they can have their own container. And they want something that looks cool to bring to school. They’re not willing to pull a cucumber out of their bag.”

Late July’s Dawes echoes the coolness theory. “They’re not going to be comfortable showing up at school with something that doesn’t reflect who they want to be,” she says, adding that her 9-year-old son rejects anything that looks too cute. “He doesn’t want foods that make him feel too juvenile,” she continues. “My 5-year-old likes foods that depict cartoon characters, but my older son wants the regular version—what the adults are eating.”

Flavor Trumps All

Taste was paramount when Ted Fries was creating the new Professor Goldie’s Snack Mix for Feridies Krunch Time Snacks, based in Courtland, Va. Feridies has specialized in classically packaged Virginia peanut products since 1973, generally catering to an older demographic. The family-owned company recently decided the time had come to reach out to a younger base.

“We wanted to ensure we’re going to be here for the next 25 years,” says Jane Riddick-Fries, Feridies’ vice president of marketing. Ted, her husband, enlisted their 7-year-old niece, Erika, and 10-year-old nephew, Noah, to help with taste tests. The kids picked out what they didn’t like, such as almonds, which were too hard for their teeth. What made the cut for Professor Goldie’s was a recipe of peanuts, marshmallows and raisins. To make the mix more fun and appetizing to the eye (and to kids), Fries added candy-colored, chocolate-dipped sunflower seeds.

The Frieses’ nephew Jared, 26, came on board to design packaging for the mix that would attract a younger age group. “We wanted something whimsical and edgy but not too much,” Riddick-Fries notes. The label extols the virtue of peanuts, that 80 percent of their fat is unsaturated, so the kids swallow a little education along with the snack.

“We’ve had a great response,” adds Riddick-Fries, who introduced Professor Goldie’s, as well as three other playfully packaged mixes, Wassa Bee Wasabi Peanuts, Sassy Salted Peanuts and Rajun Cajun Peanuts, at July’s Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C. “People are looking for something fun and different for that younger generation. We’re planning to expand to other flavors.”

Convenience and Quality Play a Role

Another factor for market growth is tweens’ busy schedules. With school, extracurricular activities and budding social lives, these kids aren’t always at home when hunger hits.

“Kids are constantly in need of snacks to fit into their lifestyle,” Dawes says. “You want things that can go in their backpacks and for when they need a snack at soccer after school.” She credits much of the popularity of Late July’s mini sandwich crackers and snack chips to on-the-go convenience.

Tweens’ increasingly refined palates have led to some surprisingly sophisticated products, such as Caviar Kid lunch packs from San Francisco’s California Caviar. Caviar Kid Fish & Chips (with Hackleback Sturgeon caviar, crème fraîche and Whale Tails organic corn chips) and Caviar Kid Fish Bowl (trout roe paired with bite-size, fish-shaped puff pastries and crème fraîche) have gotten off to a promising start since their introduction at the Fancy Food Show last January in the company’s hometown.

“Fish roe is a high-salinity food that kids really enjoy,” explains Lindsay Sutherland, California Caviar’s sales and marketing assistant. Though caviar is hardly thought of as kid food, Sutherland insists tweens have open minds. “They’re not old enough to have developed a stigma against caviar,” she says. “Parents like it because there’s no mercury and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals in a reusable, 100 percent recyclable cooler.”

Thirst-Quenchers Tap into Young Minds

Last year, Wat-aah, New York, N.Y., made a splash as the first functional bottled water aimed at kids to be approved by schools across the country for distribution. The sugar- and calorie-free nutrient-boosted water was launched in 2008 to help reverse kids’ dependency on sugary drinks and make it “cool” to hydrate with water. Cementing Wat-aah’s place in pop culture, earlier this year the company partnered with the “Let’s Move!” campaign to produce a sporty exercise video starring pop singer Beyoncé.

Tea, another realm more typical of adults, has made its own strong showing in the tween market, offering a flavorful alternative to beverages laden with high-fructose corn syrup. Honest Tea, Bethesda, Md., recently introduced Honest Kids Drink Pouches, a line of organic, low-sugar, fruit-flavored beverages with clever names like Appley Ever After, Goodness Grapeness and Berry Berry Good Lemonade. The Republic of Tea, Novato, Calif., has been offering a kid-geared line since its beginning in 1992. “Our founders wanted children to have a healthy drink that wasn’t full of sugar, carbohydrates, preservatives or artificial colors,” says Yoko Fujii, minister of ceremonies and philanthropy at the company, which playfully presents such stately titles to its employees.

“It’s a habit that starts when you’re very young,” Fujii says. One of the company’s first teas was called Kid’s Cuppa, which benefited a Bay Area nonprofit that aided neglected and abused children. “Kids respond to the needs of other children, so it really took off,” she notes. The children’s collection, now called Little Citizens, has since evolved to include fruit-forward flavors like Strawberry Cherry Decaf and Cherry Apple, the sales of which have thus far helped to build 12 school libraries in foreign countries through the nonprofit Room to Read.

“We’re hearing from kids who are doing their own fundraisers and joining support groups for Room to Read,” Fujii adds. “For upcoming birthday parties they’re requesting that guests give donations to Room to Read instead of giving gifts.”

Tween-focused foods and beverages are an industry unto themselves, with a surprisingly chic and continuously evolving age group. Producers that are tuned into preteens’ savvy tastes and concerns are clearly benefiting. By the year 2020 the U.S. Census Bureau projects the age group will hit 23 million, and it’s safe to say a good chunk of those palates will be even more refined and expectant.