Sales of organic baby food have risen dramatically in recent years. In order to compete, conventional baby food brands are having to innovate – something that can be difficult in a market made up of powdered milk formulas and pureed vegetables. But innovation in convenience and health could be the answer, as Hugh Westbrook reports.

The last few years have seen a massive increase in sales of organic baby food. So what can sellers of non-organic food do to fight back? In a market made up of powdered milk formulas and pureed vegetables, is there really room for innovation?

The growth of organic baby food sales is largely down to parents’ concerns over what they feed their children – there is a determination by many parents to start their children off in what they see as the best way possible. While non-organic food also has to compete on health grounds, it needs to find other ways to market itself.

There are of course many innovations in the health area. Euromonitor International recently analysed the world market for baby food and noted growth in particular in the powdered milk sector. This has been achieved by enhancing the formula with ingredients such as fatty acids or targeting the milk at children with allergies. It also noted that products such as organic finger foods have helped drive growth in territories such as the UK.

So what other innovations are possible? In a market aimed at parents who have very little time, convenience is of paramount importance. However, the growth of organics has shown that parents care a great deal about what goes in their offspring’s meals, and many choose to make meals themselves, pureeing endless quantities of fruit and vegetables and freezing the results.

Cooking at home

It is this area that companies are showing a willingness to tap into. In the UK, Heinz has just launched its Mum’s Ingredients line. This currently contains six basic lines – chicken, turkey, beef, cod with potatoes, mixed vegetables and Bolognese sauce. The notion behind them is that parents can use these basic ingredients as a basis from which to create more complex dishes.

Nicola Savage, marketing manager at Heinz Baby, told that the move was a recognition that mothers enjoy cooking at home.

She said: “Meat in particular is one of the more difficult things to prepare, not everybody has time to puree chicken, and mothers want to make their own recipes and suit baby’s own preferences.

“This is very popular in Italy; the majority of the market in Italy is based on this part-prepared, part-cooking habit. Mothers know they are getting the quality of the ingredients but can add to it themselves.”

Savage did confirm one other thing about the Italian market – the existence of pureed horse on supermarket shelves. International manufacturers of baby food have to be aware of all manner of local tastes.

Frozen cubes

Prepared baby food has traditionally been sold in jars. However, another innovation may see that change. Babylicious sells its products in individual frozen cubes, mimicking the way that mothers cook at home. The trend is clearly growing – Bobybaby products in Canada are in a similar vein.

Sally Preston , the founder of Babylicious, told just-food: “There was a gap in the market and there was no product comparative to what mothers make at home.  Mothers do not make food and then stick it in a jar and sterilise it.

“Lots of mothers spend lots of time cooking, pureeing, and filling the freezer. It’s an enormous amount of time so we wanted them find something akin to what they could make at home.”

One of Preston’s biggest frustrations is getting the product into shops, and she blames retailers for not being willing enough to embrace innovation. Babylicious products are frozen, but she feels that freezers have to be placed in the aisle containing other baby products, as parents are unlikely to go to the freezer cabinet in a supermarket to look for baby food.

“If it goes into the freezer section, people can’t find it. Therefore there needs to be a freezer in the baby aisles, and Asda are very good, they have stolen a march on the others. Logistical problems make it difficult but they should get on with it.”

Preston added that nutritionally her product is not much different to the jarred products on the shelves. However, she is certain she knows where her competitive advantage lies.

“Ours tastes like food, it tastes like you made it at home. The jarred products do not taste as good. That is the big point of difference,” she said.

Consumer confusion

Aside from innovation, there are many other issues that baby food manufacturers have to deal with. A principal one is information – new parents can be bombarded with reams of facts about what they should and shouldn’t feed their children, much of which can be quite confusing. Large companies like Heinz take a responsibility for disseminating information.

Savage said: “It is not difficult for us to deal with as we have a very experienced team of nutritionists. What is confusing is there are 2,000 new consumers a day and all the information is new and it comes from so many different sources. What we need to do is to cut through all of that.”

To that end, Heinz in the UK has launched the Heinz Promise, a ten-point set of principles which aims to underlie all produce sold. It provides assurances to parents on issues such as the source of ingredients and the nutritional value of food sold. It is similar to the Purity Assurance which accompanies Heinz food in Canada.

While initiatives such as these are clearly good from a marketing point of view, they are also important to parents – baby food companies are targeting consumers who are new to that segment of the market and who are often weighed down by mounds of contradictory advice. It is up to the manufacturers to continue to provide simple, trustworthy information to a slightly bewildered clientele.

Baby food is not an obvious area for innovation. However, companies both big and small are showing that there are areas in which the market can be made to grow, and even though organic is very important to parents shopping for their children, there is plenty of room for new ideas elsewhere.