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Children grow into healthy adults through sensible eating

A project launched by Sitra’s Food and Nutrition Programme gathers together various actors to examine children's eating habits.


Sitra unites public- and private-sector actors

Media Release 27 September 2006

The Finnish school meal system is renowned for its quality. Although Finland has invested in children’s welfare for decades, we are receiving disturbing news about children who are overweight and exhausted and whose teeth are decaying, young men too unfit to do their military service, and girls suffering from eating disorders. We blame the food industry, local authorities, parents who are too busy and the media. NGOs are being requested to provide more effective input.

A Smart Snacks project launched by Sitra’s Food and Nutrition Programme ERA is gathering together various actors to examine the current situation regarding children’s eating habits and to establish which measures should be required to improve them.

The Smart Snacks project, which focuses on schoolchildren’s nutrition and snacks, in particular, supports the ERA programme’s objective to make Finland a forerunner in healthy nutrition. The ERA programme aims at improving Finland’s competitiveness and public health. The Smart Snacks project specifically targets children and young people. Sitra is providing funding for the project in excess of €1.5 million over the next 2–3 years. Work towards the same goals being carried out by other actors provides valuable support for the endeavour.

The Smart Snacks project includes health and nutrition research, development of healthy products, school pilots, communications and experimental projects. The impacts of all these parts are monitored. Proven, good practices will eventually be emulated. The project will produce exportable concepts and reinforce Finland’s image as a model country in school meals.

– Sitra’s decision to focus on children and young people through its ERA programme is based on the fact that we learn our lifestyles when we are young. There is growing concern that the Finnish school meal system, which we hold in such a high regard, is beginning to crumble. That we have lost appreciation for proper meals is apparent also in how people eat at home, says Dr. Anu Harkki, Executive Director of the ERA Programme. – In addition, our project is motivated by our wish to bring together various actors and thus support the Finnish food industry by developing tasty and healthy snacks that are also in great demand internationally.

Better knowledge and co-operation

The Smart Snacks project studies the eating habits of Finnish primary- and lower secondary-school pupils. A project run in Kuopio, eastern Finland, tests methods of influencing 6- to 7-year-old children. The head of the project, Professor Timo Lakka reveals that the methods tested in the Kuopio project include nutritional advice given to parents, siblings and friends, changing the meals and snacks offered to children, and using games to encourage children to choose healthier food and to be physically more active. The aim is to achieve permanent changes in children’s nutrition and physical activity and thereby prevent obesity and related illnesses in youth as well as adulthood.

A research group at the National Public Health Institute is responsible for methods targeted at schoolchildren in grades 7–9. The Institute of Dentistry, University of Oulu,is studying methods for reversing the downward trend in children’s dental health. Interventions planned for five schools around Finland will be carried out by Finnish Bread and the Finnish Heart Association.
– We will first carry out health and nutrition studies among lower secondary-level pupils, says Professor Pirjo Pietinen from the National Public Health Institute.

She finds it quite surprising that Finland has no reliable data collected on schoolchildren’s health.
– Before we start experimenting with different influencing methods, we must know what the current situation is. It is high time that we recognise the long-term effects the excessive consumption of soft drinks and sweets, which has become commonplace at schools, may have on the individual and society at large. Having Sitra as one of the financiers enables a scientific foundation and extensive experiments on various methods, says Pietinen.

Corporate collaboration

HK Ruokatalo Group, Valio Ltd, Vaasan & Vaasan Group, Raisio and Sodexho have contributed to the planning of the Smart Snacks project. The companies will introduce new products to schoolchildren, and then study the attractiveness and health benefits of the products. The companies emphasise the importance of networking and scientifically proven data as a basis for developing quality food products.
– Thanks to this project, companies developing health-food products have an opportunity to show that healthy can also be tasty, says Jyrki Sukula, Chef and the Creative Director of HK Ruokaltalo. – The idea of smart food is to taste good as well as to be healthy; otherwise no one would eat it.

NGOs bringing the message to adults

Moderation and regularity in eating is a message that all those involved in the project want to convey. Finnish NGOs have long and honourable traditions in providing nutritional guidance to the public, a task that is further supported by the project. First, the Smart Snacks project wants to influence the adults around children, so that they remember the importance of what and how children eat and give it the consideration it deserves. In practice, this means that homes as well as school would pay more attention to food.
The Smart Snacks project reminds us that, in the words of the Finnish Heart Association slogan, “The old show the way to the young – also at the dining table!”

Further information

Sitra’s Food and Nutrition Programme, ERA
Dr. Anu Harkki, Executive Director
Tel. (09) 6189 9458, 050 431 1651

Dr. Markku Mikola, Project Manager
Tel. (09) 6189 9552, 040 7718030

Seija Kurunmäki, Media Consultant
Tel. 0400 460894

National Public Health Institute
Professor Pirjo Pietinen
Tel. (09) 474 41

The Smart Snacks project (Järkipalaa in Finnish) for schoolchildren will be carried out between 2006 and 2009 as part of Sitra’s ERA programme, which is a joint effort to make Finland a forerunner in healthy nutrition. The Smart Snacks project brings the public and private sectors to collaborate at many levels to help children grow into healthy adults.

The project includes research, interventions and development projects to study children’s health and to identify effective methods to improve it. The project aims to improve children’s and young people’s nutrition and dental health and increase their physical activity.

Special attention will be paid to meals during the school day and the healthiness of schoolchildren’s snacks. The project provides companies with an opportunity to develop and export health-promoting products and concepts.

The project partners are the National Public Health Institute, University of Kuopio, University of Oulu Institute of Dentistry, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, University of Turku Functional Foods Forum, Finnish Centre for Health Promotion, Finnish Heart Association, Finnish Bread, Valio Ltd, Raisio, Hk Ruokatalo Group, Vaasan & Vaasan Group, and Sodexho.