Baby Steps

Most moms would like to make their own baby food, but can't due to time constraints and other reasons. But they're finding the next best thing in new prepared baby food offerings that have the taste and texture of homemade, and are packed with functional ingredients like prebiotics, probiotics and superfoods. Moms want to feed their babies the cleanest, healthiest foods they can, said Debbie Leland,

Most moms would like to make their own baby food, but can't due to time constraints and other reasons.

But they're finding the next best thing in new prepared baby food offerings that have the taste and texture of homemade, and are packed with functional ingredients like prebiotics, probiotics and superfoods.

“Moms want to feed their babies the cleanest, healthiest foods they can,” said Debbie Leland, natural and specialty buyer, Kowalski's Markets, Lakeville, Minn.

This led to the creation of a new baby food category — organic frozen baby food — several years ago. When the frozen baby food category was in its infancy, Kowalski's dedicated an entire frozen door to better-for-you baby/kids' foods including not only frozen baby food, but frozen organic kids' meals from Amy's and Ian's. While the meals did well, the frozen baby food did not. The door, branded “Healthy Kids,” remains, minus the frozen baby food.

Indeed, many retailers report the difficulty of getting young mothers to shop for baby food in the frozens department. But retailers are meeting the demand for alternative baby food in other ways.

Kowalski's has a 4-foot organic space in its grocery section. Brands like Earth's Best, Gerber Organic and Healthy Times organic baby food are stocked there, as are snacks like HappyBaby's Happy Puffs organic finger foods.

While the section doesn't produce stellar sales, Kowalski's keeps it in place to cater to those consumers in search of specialty offerings.

“We think there's a value to having it,” Leland said.

When asked what they look for when choosing foods for their children aged 3 and under, more than two-thirds (68%) of 243 mom respondents to a Mintel study said low or no sugar; more than half cited no artificial colors or preservatives; and 42% said the addition of iron, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). DHA and ARA are fatty acids found naturally in breast milk that aid brain and eye development.

“Today's parents are better educated about nutrition and are reading labels,” Evan Eckman, chief marketing officer, Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., told SN. “They're looking for products that are lower in sugar and sodium — and if affordably priced, they want all-natural products — without fillers and preservatives.”

To meet these needs, Beech-Nut launched Stage-3 products called “Homestyle — Tastes and Textures” last year. The food is homemade-style for babies who are transitioning to table foods. The line has been so successful that Beech-Nut is relaunching the entire Stage-3 range under the Beech-Nut “Homestyle” platform.

New convenience products are also in the works. This spring, it will introduce Beech-Nut macaroni & cheese with carrots, cheesy lasagna and other toddler meals in partnership with Disney. The microwavable toddler meals are shelf-stable and packaged in BPA-free plastic recloseable tubs.

Nestlé's Gerber brand has also been busy with new product development aimed at meeting the needs of today's parents.

“Parents want the best for their kids but they don't always have the time to make foods that are nutritious and fun,” said Rick Klauser, CMO, Nestlé Infant Nutrition. “That's where we come in.”

This spring, Gerber will introduce SmartNourish “2nd Foods” purees with DHA, vitamin E and choline, a nutrient in the B vitamin family.

Another new value-added product is Gerber Graduates shelf-stable Yogurt Blends snacks with vitamins A, C, D and E and omega-3 fatty acid.

New items will also launch under the Gerber Good Start brand this spring. (Gerber Good Start formula is replacing Nestlé Good Start in the U.S.) These include Gerber Good Start Protect Plus infant formula, made from partially hydrolyzed 100% whey protein and Bifidus BL, a strain of probiotic that helps strengthen a healthy immune system. This probiotic is also being used in new Gerber Oatmeal Cereal with DHA and Bifidus B.

“Parents want to understand what nutrients, foods and ingredients support their child's healthy immune system, brain and eye health, and digestive tract,” said Klauser.

Smaller companies like Plum Organics and HappyBaby are also making an impact. While these two companies got their start largely marketing frozen organic baby food, they have since branched out to offer premium organic shelf-stable items.

HappyBaby's mission is to provide optimal nutrition as close to homemade as possible, said Shazi Visram, founder and chief executive officer, HappyBaby, New York.

“Parents want top-quality products that replicate the home-style process,” Visram told SN.

Due to work and family obligations, few have time to make it themselves.

“In today's world, moms want convenience because they're on the go. They're not at home making a casserole,” she said.

Catering to such parents, HappyBaby launched HappyBabyPouches, fruits and vegetable blends that come in a pouch with a built-in, straw-like feature.

“Older children can actually hold it and squeeze it into their mouths,” she said.

HappyBaby also offers a variety of fortified foods. One is HappyMelts, freeze-dried yogurt snacks that “melt” in baby's mouth. They contain organic fruit and yogurt, and are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, as well as prebiotics and probiotics for digestive wellness. There's also HappyTot toddler meals, which contain salba, a supergrain that's an excellent source of fatty acids.

Duane Reade, which operates nearly 260 stores in New York City, is the exclusive drug store carrier of the HappyBaby line. Last September, it started carrying a variety of HappyBaby items as part of a broader strategy to build the baby food category. In addition to carrying mainstream baby food brands, Duane Reade also offers HappyMelts organic yogurt snacks, organic puffs, HappyBellies cereal and its organic frozen baby food and toddler entrees. (Last month, Walgreen Co. agreed to buy Duane Reade.)

“We chose to carry HappyBaby products in our Duane Reade stores largely because we found that today's parents — who are increasingly on the go and environmentally aware — are actively seeking the combination of organic, yet easy-to-eat baby food products,” Joe Magnacca, Duane Reade's chief merchandising officer, told SN.

GRAB-AND-GO

Plum Organics, Emeryville, Calif., another organic baby food marketer, is also getting more retail exposure. One way the company taps into the convenience trend is with MishMash, fruit puree snacks in squeezable pouches, which contain organic acerola fruit.

“It's a great way of naturally boosting vitamin C,” Gigi Lee Chang, the company's founder, told SN.

Plum has focused on pouch technology over the last year.

“The pouches enable us to provide a better-tasting and more portable product,” she said.

The pouch has a built-in straw that lets parents squeeze out the amount they want to feed their babies. The packaging is also conducive for older babies and toddlers because they can hold it themselves and suck out what they want.

The pouches provide fruit purees for young babies and fruit and veggie blends for older babies.

“The pouch can be easily thrown in a diaper bag and moms don't have to worry that it will break,” she said.

While specialty baby food sales thrive at some retailers, other chains do best with traditional brands. Such is the case at Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, Utah, where demand is highest for Gerber and Beech-Nut.

While supermarkets remain the largest retail channel for baby food and drink, the baby food category has taken a hit due to channel shifting, said Doug Pitt, Associated's category manager.

Associated's sales are down about 3% for the last 52 weeks, compared with previous-year sales.

Indeed, baby food/snacks sales slipped 2.3% in supermarkets to $698.2 million for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, compared with the previous 52 weeks, according to Information Resources Inc.

Along with channel surfing, Pitt attributes the slide to other reasons, including declining birth rates. Rates could be further reduced as a weakened economy causes couples to reconsider starting a family, according to Mintel.

The baby formula industry faces formidable competition from advocates of breastfeeding. These groups and many others strongly advocate breastfeeding and assist breastfeeding mothers based on the premise that breast milk provides the best possible nutrition.

Likewise, the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) now offers mothers who solely breastfeed with increased quantities of approved foods, including a monthly $10 voucher that can be redeemed for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The WIC incentive to breastfeed is certainly hurting formula sales,” said Pitt.

To prevent shoppers from leaving the category, it keeps its baby food margins low.

“We're just about breaking even on baby food,” Pitt said.

The goal is to boost loyalty of young mothers. By offering then competitive prices, it hopes moms will build a relationship with their stores and continue shopping there as their children grow.

“We want to capture mothers when they first have babies,” he said.

Associated takes a more aggressive sales approach to toddler food, a category that produces 13% margins.

“This is the only area [in baby] where we make money,” according to Pitt.

BABY CENTER

Baby food that's low in sugar and is all-natural is important to young moms

What attributes do you look for in baby food?
(Select all that apply.)

Low-/no sugar: 68%
All natural: 55%
No artificial colors/preservatives: 53%
Fortification (DHA, iron, etc.): 42%
Organic: 21%

SOURCE: Mintel online survey of 243 mothers with children ages 3 and under