Baby food is breaking out of jars and finding its way into the cold case and freezer section. Where organic was once enough, consumer demand for the best in premade food for baby is changing the temperature, and taste, of this entire segment.
More than half a dozen companies are shaking up the baby-food market, filling cups and ice cube-style trays with frozen and refrigerated offerings like quinoa, corn and black beans and broccoli—foods that are not available in junior-size jars.
Not surprisingly, it's mothers frustrated with the lack of premade options who are spearheading the baby-food revolution. "When my baby was ready for solids, I checked out the stuff in the jars, and I didn't like the way it smelled or tasted," says Jennifer Howie, owner of Longmont, Colo.-based Little Potatoes. So she made her own food and took it to outings where she'd repeatedly hear parents lamenting that they didn't have time to cook like that for their babies. That encouraged her to open up shop.
Now, Howie spends many days scouring local farmers' markets looking for ingredients to put into her high-pressure steamer oven for baby food. "I only buy organic and try to source local produce and don't use anything artificial," she says.
Organic frozen and refrigerated baby-food manufacturers steam or roast their produce without the addition of salt, sugar, starch and preservatives that many conventional brands use.
But no fillers or preservatives don't mean less flavor. Many companies have a staff chef (yes, chef) to create foods that not only appeal to wee ones but also turn them on to a variety of flavors early on. "The second six months of life is the only window of opportunity you have to develop your baby's taste buds. If you miss this precious time, your child may join the ranks of picky eaters," says Annabel Karmel, author of Superfoods for Babies (Simon & Schuster, 2006). Indeed, studies show that the greater variety of tastes babies are exposed to, the more varied their food preferences will be later in life.
Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Happy Baby is turning on palates with bold organic blends such as d'Anjou pears, spinach and mango. And what would pureed peas be without a hint of mint? The foods are packaged in trays with 12 mix-and-match flavors such as squash and apples, and grains and lentil dhal.
Culver City, Calif.-based Homemade Baby offers a tasting room to its pint-size customers. "A lot of parents bring their kids in here for their first taste of food. We give them a photo and the chef comes out and meets them," says co-founder Matt Kiene. The chef happens to be a graduate of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. "He oversees every batch of food and develops the recipes. They seem simple, but there is a technique behind them; it took a year to develop our apples—it's a unique combination of apples," Kiene says. The chef also works with a pediatric nurse to ensure the foods meet the dietary needs of children.
And if a parent wants to know where the food came from, he or she can use the company's Field to Fingers certification—an audit trail that will trace a code on the cup to where the ingredients were grown and where they were certified organic. "It helps overcome the notion that [the products] are homemade with a dog licking the spoon," Kiene says.
Homemade Baby doesn't freeze its food. Instead, the produce is kettle-cooked to a temperature that kills any bacteria, and then it's packed in plastic cups with as little air as possible. A sample of every batch is sent to a lab to ensure it's microbe-free. So far, no retailers have balked at the 30-day shelf life. "It's the same as yogurt," Kiene says.
Texture is also vital to a baby's enjoyment of food, but it can't be found in jarred foods, says Gigi Lee Chang, founder of New York-based Plum Organics. "Our sweet potatoes are the right amount of smoothness with a whipped quality. In contrast, our Super Greens has a natural, earthy texture from the spinach, green beans and peas—just as green vegetables should be." Lee Chang, who has a master's degree in business administration from the London Business School, expects her frozen baby food line to be nationally distributed early this fall.
Although fresh and frozen baby foods seem poised to steal a chunk of market share, not everyone foresees a takeover. "It's not what the market wants," says Rondi Prescott, owner of jarred baby-food veteran Healthy Times. "The texture is better, smoother [with jarred foods], and moms want convenience." Also, a jar of baby food can be tossed into a bag and stay there for weeks. With frozen foods, a parent has to think ahead, and more food could go to waste, Prescott says.
Building consumer trust is another issue, author Karmel points out. "When it comes to a baby, parents do not want to experiment."
Some retailers may worry that the price point could be a deterrent (organic jarred food averages $1 for a 4-ounce jar compared with about $2 for a 4-ounce serving of frozen or refrigerated). But Karmel doesn't think the extra cost will be a problem: "I believe that parents will pay a premium for high-quality product."
Although the future of the natural and organic baby-food segment remains to be seen, one thing is sure: Retailers had better be making some room in their refrigerator cases and freezer sections.
Anna Soref is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 45, 58