Organic baby food has been a runaway success. The organic share of the UK babyfood market is approaching half. Yet once the children get big enough to chew their own food, it’s back to a much more conventional diet. Chris Lyddon investigates.
The boom in organic baby food was led by Organix, the company founded in 1992 by Children’s food evangelist Lizzy Vann. The company’s in no doubt that its success is down to more than just being organic. It’s about how parents feel about the food they give to their children, Organix spokeswoman Mari Van Hagen told just-food.com.
“The fact that it’s organic is important, but not as important as the thing in their heads saying ‘it’s better for my children’,” she said. “It is because we do look for better quality ingredients. We do go that extra mile.” That self-same quality was Organix’ answer to people who query the relatively high price of its products.
Media attention to issues like obesity in children is making parents think hard. “They’ll make their own minds up,” she said. “Word of mouth is very powerful.”
It has worked. Organix has the fastest growth of any baby food manufacturer, with sales rising at 12.8%t. Its share is 10.4% in a market dominated by Heinz with 52.5%, Cow and Gate with 15.8% and Hipp with 21.5%.
Most striking has been the onward march of organic in the baby food sector. The competition has learnt from the success of Organix and brought out its own ranges. In the 52 weeks to the end of September 2004 organic food accounted for 45.8% of all baby food, a year on year rise of 2.9%. Total baby food sales grew by 2.6%.
Range for older children
Organix is moving up the age range. In October of 2003 it launched a range of organic snacks for children. The range includes packet snacks like Curly Puffs, fruit and cereal bars and raisins in boxes. “Since October to now it’s grown fast,” Van Hagen said.
Even so the range was still limited. “We’re concentrating on ages one to five,” she said. “We realised you can’t do everything.”
At that age children are still eating what their parents buy. “You can still take decisions for children at that age,” she said.
Organix does plan to go further up the age range. “We’re going to grow the range again,” she said. “We believe there is a gap.” Organix has decided that the way to do that is to get out of the baby food section. That way the children will perceive it as aimed at them. “At the moment a mum gives an eight year old a packet of goodies and the reaction is “that’s what babies eat”,” she said.
The range is helping Organix to build a big share of the baby finger food market. Organix had 24% of that market, made up of 14% Baby Organix and 24% Goodies, by February 2004. It means that Organix already has 91.8% of the Organic baby finger food market.
Children make their own choices
Selling healthy food to older children gets progressively harder. “At eight or nine they have their own personality,” she said. Children were influenced by what they saw other children eating, as well as what they eat at school – out of the control of parents. “At some point you have to let them make their own decisions,” she said. “Eight- or nine-year-olds see what others have.” But even so Organix hasn’t given up on the older children. “We are trying to do it for older children at some point,” she said. “It’s far in the future. It takes a long time to do that.”
“You can have a nutritious food without e-numbers,” she said. “At the moment we’re trying to get the message across to parents.”
Rebecca Foster, nutritionist at the British Nutrition Foundation, suggested why parents might feel it worth buying organic food for younger children. “The view that organic foods are ‘healthier’ than conventionally produced foods appears to be based on the perception that organic foods have superior sensory attributes and contain lower levels of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers,” she told just-food.com. “Parents may feel this is particularly important for their young children whilst being weaned.”
But the trouble is that it gets harder as they get older. “It is important to remember that organic foods are a lifestyle choice,” she said. “As young children begin to adopt the diet of the family, during the latter stages of weaning, it may not be feasible to purchase food items especially for them, such as organic products.”
As children got older the more they were subject to outside factors, as well as to their own personal tastes and preferences. “Food choice is generally influenced by various physiological, social and cultural factors, as well as availability,” she said. “These will all be important in determining what foods are provided for children by parents, and what foods are selected by children themselves as they begin to make their own decisions about what to eat.”
She was not convinced that organic food was necessarily better for children. “There is no evidence to show that crops grown organically have a better nutrient content than those produced non-organically,” she said. “However, it has been acknowledged that little research has been conducted to date and much of the available scientific information is out-dated or based on inadequate study design.”
There was no danger to children from being fed conventional food. “It should be recognised that if pesticides are present at all in non-organically produced fruit and vegetables, the levels are very low,” she said. “These low levels do not present a risk to human health.”
Officialdom is not taking a line on whether organic food is better for infants, and is not monitoring parents’ attitudes, Food Standards Agency spokesman Robert Westhead told just-food.com. “We don’t have any special insight into parents’ motivation,” he said. “We do feel very strongly that children should eat a healthy balanced diet.”