As the debate about the tangible benefits of organic food rumbles on, nowhere are the arguments more pertinent than in the baby food sector. Parents are anxious to feed their children with what seems to be the most wholesome, healthy meal, but industry insiders admit that what you think you see may not always be what you get. Hugh Westbrook asks what exactly is driving the growth of the organic baby food market.

The growth of organic food and the debate surrounding it have been well documented. For every proponent who asserts it is safer and healthier than the alternatives, there seems to be somebody else who argues the reverse. The debate becomes more emotive when applied to baby food. Is organic baby food vital for an infant’s health, or are other underlying issues driving its growth?

Concern for giving babies what is seen as the best possible start in life is regarded as the principal driver behind the growth in the organic baby food market. In its recent report The Global Market for Baby Food, Euromonitor points out that organic baby food now accounts for 31% of the UK market, while in Germany, surveys have shown that over 90% of young mothers are in favour of buying it.

Jean Michel Boyer, the managing director of French group Vitagermine, is in no doubt that organic baby food is better for infants. Speaking at The Organic Food and Wine Festival in London earlier this year, he said that the issues of chemical pollutants and nutrition were important in assessing the value of organic baby food.

Boyer argued that babies’ digestive systems are immature so their food has to be as pollutant-free as possible. Regulation ensures pesticide limits in all baby food, but Boyer claimed: “Strict legislation means non-organic brands have to use thoroughly refined ingredients, which have then lost most of their valuable nutrients through over-processing.”

Nutrition – a residual concern

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His argument only succeeds however if crops are grown with pesticides and are then treated to remove them. Upcoming changes in European legislation may change this. From July 2002, the permitted pesticide level will be 0.01mg per kg, arguably so tiny as to be almost negligible. From a pesticide point of view, organic and non-organic baby food will basically be identical and to be differentiated, reference would need to be made to the environmental impact of production methods or the nutritional value of the produce used. It would be wrong for consumers to assume that organic equates to pesticide-free and non-organic indicates the presence of pesticides.

Helen Messenger, spokesperson for UK brand Cow & Gate, said that despite the company having an organic range, Olvarit Organic, there are no detectable pesticide residues in the vegetables that go into their non-organic line. “We contract-grow all of our ingredients so we know exactly what treatments are being used and we inspect them regularly,” she told

She described the difference between the organic and non-organic products as “holistic”, meaning that produce selected for organic lines has additional checks in keeping with organic food philosophy and standards. However, she said the nutritional value is regarded as identical.

She added that parents’ choice of organic baby food products is governed by their own lifestyle. “Parents like to offer babies similar food to what they’re eating, so if they eat organic, they will want their children to as well.” Alternatively, changing tastes mean that parents may enjoy dishes such as spaghetti bolognese and will therefore select baby foods that reflect more modern recipes and their own preferences, she said.

Organic taste experience?

So if nutritionally there is little difference, what are the advantages of organic baby food? Vitagermine’s Boyer argued that the choice of organic is part of educating a baby’s palate into enjoying a wide variety of nutritional foods and tastes, pointing out that it is unnecessary to include sugar in baby foods and criticising the use of bulking agents such as starch or water.

Of course, a product does not have to be organic to be created in this way. Messenger agreed that it is “important to offer babies a wide variety of tastes to ensure they receive a good nutritional intake and to establish good eating habits for the future. The diet should include both ready-made baby food and home-prepared foods, and this can be organic or conventional foods. There is no reason why all are not equally tasty.”

Nevertheless, Boyer’s comments do help us to understand that organic baby food is often perceived as being more associated with wholesomeness and nutrition than its conventional counterpart, even if this is not actually true of the products themselves. This fits very much into the US perception of such products. Gerber, the market’s biggest player, has produced the Tender Harvest organic line in tandem with its non-organic lines since 1997. Product manager Michelle Waits explained to that even though sales had risen 50% over the last four years, it still represented less than 10% of Gerber’s total baby food sales.

Innovative flavours

“Mostly people buy Tender Harvest as an occasional purchase, there’s no sign of them being purely organic users,” she said, adding that the range has unusual combinations which are not found in the main line. “The desire for innovative products is the main driver behind purchasing,” she said. This is borne out by information on the company website, which stresses the lack of artificial colours, sugar and starch, together with the unusual recipes, above the organic origin of the ingredients.

She added that health issues were not part of the marketing push. “We’ve never seen any evidence that organic food is better or worse for you so it will not be marketed in that way.”

As for the future, she does not expect sales to follow the growth patterns seen in Europe. “There isn’t the latent growth that will see it jump in the US,” she said, adding that sales are driven by the appearance of the product on the shelf rather than there being a huge demand. “There is trust in Gerber baby food and no latent disaffection which would drive organic into becoming bigger.”

While the mooted health benefits of organic baby food seem to be a major reason for people to choose it, opinion from those in the market is divided over the advantages. What seems clearer is that the choice of organic carries with it associations of good food, innovation and education, and that while organic means certain things when associated with adult food, for baby food it is developing a different set of values.

By Hugh Westbrook, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

The Global Market for Baby Food

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Baby Foods

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Prepared Baby Foods

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Dried Baby Foods