Nursing women often shop natural products stores to buy the best foods for themselves to make the best milk for their infants. But some women can't breastfeed their babies, or need to supplement with formula. These customers will be looking to you to stock the healthiest options out there. And while conventional companies like Similac and Parent's Choice are entering the organic-formula arena, selling organic options with higher-quality ingredients gives you the edge.
Many of your customers buying formula do so out of necessity. "There's a huge population of parents who adopt, and though a small percentage of those mothers can stimulate lactation, they usually still need to supplement with formula," says Keri Marshall, N.D., with Makai Naturopathic Center in Dover, N.H. Also, women taking certain medications or receiving chemotherapy don't have the option to breastfeed.
To these parents, Marshall recommends organic infant formula, primarily to avoid the antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms in milk and soymilk-based conventional varieties. Growth hormones in dairy products have been linked to early-onset puberty in girls, and "feeding ourselves products supplemented with antibiotics puts us at risk for more resistance to the drugs and changing bacteria," she says. Marshall is also concerned about GMOs used in conventional soymilk. "There are no long-term studies on the effects of GMOs in humans," she says.
Marshall always suggests to her patients that they start off with a milk-based formula rather than one that's soy-based. "Soy is one of the primary digestive irritants. If you have parents complaining about colic, it's often because the baby is on soy," she says. If the infant is having digestive trouble with a dairy-based formula, she suggests trying a whey formula that doesn't contain casein, a primary irritant in milk.
Customers should also realize that not all certified-organic infant formulas on the market are the same quality, says Karla Highman, director of marketing for Columbus, Ohio-based Nature's One. She points to ingredients such as corn syrup in some of the conventional brands of organic formulas. "We use brown rice syrup; they use simple sugars," she says. Brown rice syrup is less processed and has a lower glycemic index, thus keeping blood-sugar levels more stable.
When Nature's One introduced Baby's Only, its organic infant formula in 2000, it didn't want to undermine nursing mothers, so the label read, and still reads, "Toddler Formula." "We didn't want to compete with breast milk; we advocate breastfeeding," Highman says. But the formula meets the nutritional requirements for infant formula, so parents can give Baby's Only to their infants in place of breast milk if necessary.
Although it's become popular to add fatty acids that are in breast milk for brain and eye development to formula, Baby's Only does not contain docosahexaenoic acid or arachidonic acid. "Non-essential fatty acids are made by the body and do not necessarily need to be derived from food. DHA and ARA are non-essential fatty acids and are made from alpha-linolenic fatty acid and linoleic fatty acid, which we add to our formulas," Highman says. The American Association of Pediatrics is still questioning the need to add these ingredients to infant formula, Highman points out.
For parents who do want to add DHA and ARA, Highman suggests the company's DHA and ARA supplement, which is the only DHA and ARA source that has been formulated specifically for infants and toddlers without synthetic oils treated with hexane-solvent acid and bleach, she says. Marshall says that parents can also add cod liver oil directly to the bottle. She suggests infants up to18 months and up to 15 pounds take 32 milligrams per pound of body weight of flavored cod liver oil daily.
Boulder, Colo.-based natural baby-food maker Earth's Best began offering organic infant formula when it recently took over the manufacture of Horizon Organic's infant formula. "Horizon's core competencies are cheese and dairy products. Earth's Best is an infant, toddler and children's organic food brand serving the needs of moms now for over 20 years. It was a very appropriate fit for us," says Kim Bremer, category group manager. Earth's Best did not change the ingredients, just the packaging. The company will debut an organic soy formula with DHA and ARA at Natural Products Expo West.
Unlike conventional formula, Earth's Best Organic Dairy Formula is produced from organic milk. "Organic certification requires dairy cows be fed organic feed for at least one year ... . These feeds must be grown on lands using approved pest control and fertilizers for a minimum of three years prior to certification," Bremer says.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to see organic infant formula lining the shelves of big conventional players like Wal-Mart—which has been stocking organic baby foods for some time now.
For mass manufacturer PBM Products, which makes Bright Beginnings and private label products, it was a question of dollars and cents. "We looked at some of [the Organic Trade Association's] information and saw that sales of organic consumer products were on the rise and thought it would be a good fit to launch it with Wal-Mart's organic line in the fall of 2005," says Joe Shields, spokesman for PBM Products in Gordonsville, Va. Before the company launched its organic formula, it conducted focus groups and found consumer demand was definitely there.
So how do naturals retailers compete with stores like Wal-Mart selling organic formula? Know your ingredients. Just because a formula is certified organic, it doesn't necessarily have the best possible ingredients. Also, chances are naturals retailers will take the time out to discuss organic formulas with consumers, something employees at the big box stores probably aren't doing.
Anna Soref is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 40, 46