More babies squeezing organic food from pouches
BY MICHAEL HILL Associated Press
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
1/16/13 at 3:05 AM
ALBANY, N.Y. - Baby food used to have an image as stable - and bland - as a jar of strained peas. And its target market was limited to, well, babies.
Old-school jars of applesauce are still around, but these days they share shelf space in the baby-food aisle with curious (and often organic) combinations like zucchini, banana and amaranth (it's a grain) packed in brightly colored pouches intended to be squished and slurped by consumers with little - and not so little - hands.
"What we try to do is engage them, stimulate all of their senses," says Paul Lindley, founder of Ella's Kitchen baby food, a pioneer in the use of pouch-style packaging. "Not just their taste sense, not just putting a spoon in their mouth or a pouch into their mouth ... but to try to stimulate all their other senses."
Welcome to the world of premium baby foods, part of a $1.5 billion industry that's no longer just about babies. Babies don't generally care much about food packaging. But toddlers, older children and convenience-driven parents do.
Pouches have allowed baby-food makers to broaden the appeal of their products beyond the traditional baby-food years. Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for the Hain Celestial Group, maker of organic brand Earth's Best, says pouches have helped fuel 11 percent growth at Earth's Best even as the U.S. birth rate declines.
"It's allowing us to age up. Where moms may have stopped baby food at 9 to 12 months, the pouches have really helped extend the shelf life of baby food," she says. "We see growth for a long time to come."
Parents like Lindsey Carl, of Clarksville, Tenn., make the case, saying pouches are a less messy way to feed her 22-month-old daughter and 10-month-old son simultaneously. "They don't require a spoon, which makes on-the-go easy," she says.
Premium baby food is an increasingly crowded industry, with other major players including Plum Organics; Sprout, the organic baby food company founded by Food Network star Tyler Florence; and even long-established baby-food maker Gerber.
"We're excited about pouches - and we're the No. 1 in the segment, and we want to continue to grow it," says Aileen Stocks, Gerber's head of integrated marketing.
Obviously, the premium trend also is about what's in the pouches. And increasingly it's organic. Organic accounts for only about 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, but organic baby food represents a more impressive 21 percent of that category, Putman says. Organic pouches can run $1.69 for 4 ounces, compared to 99 cents for some jarred food.
Premium baby foods also bridge the gap between the parents who feed out of jars and those who prefer a make-it-from-scratch approach, creating a middle ground both sides of that parenting debate are more comfortable with.
Florence sees Sprout as a way to expose more young eaters to a wider variety of more flavorful foods. His own "Aha!" moment came when a friend's toddler was spitting up old-fashioned jar food. Florence steamed and pureed carrots, and the boy licked the bowl clean.
"If you're feeding a child just sort of green gruel out of a jar and they're spitting it up all over their shirt, they're saying, 'Listen, I don't like this stuff,' " Florence says.
Not everyone is cooing over pouches, though.
One common criticism is that in some cases a pouch will read something like "spinach and apples," giving an impression of a vegetable-rich meal even if the ingredient label lists more apples than spinach. More pointedly, some critics claim that parents tend to over-rely on pouches.
Dina Rose, a sociologist who writes the "It's Not About Nutrition" blog, said though pouches can be a beneficial "bridge" to fresh fruits and vegetables, they are no substitute.
"It lulls people into thinking that they've done their fruit-and-vegetable job. So they're done," Rose says. "And it gets them out of what they think of as the struggle to get their kids to eat fruits and vegetables."
Although they can be more expensive, baby-food pouches are beloved by parents who can let their kids feed themselves at a young age. NICK UT / Associated Press