Allegations of misleading baby food labels spurs changes in market

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Allegations of misleading baby food labels spurs changes in market

Related tags Baby food

Beech-Nut Nutrition Company is going above and beyond the legal labeling requirements of ingredients to reassure parents following allegations that other baby food companies’ labeling misleads consumers about the quality and quantities of ingredients in products. 

Beech-Nut last month become the first U.S. baby food maker in the U.S. to list on its website the specific percentages of each ingredient in its jars and pouches, and is considering adding the information to product labels within the next year, said Andy Dahlen, Beech-Nut’s Director of Marketing.

“This is something we have considered doing for some time so that moms have full transparency”​ and know what they are feeding their children, Dahlen said. He explained that the move is part of the company’s overall transformation in the past two years to improve its products’ quality and its communication with consumers.

“Transparency is a core value and something we are choosing to highlight,”​ he said, noting the company also recently switched to clear jars and clear labels so that parents more easily could see the color and texture of the food before they buy it. The company also reinforces its dedication to transparency by including on its website videos about how it produces its baby food and emphasizes the purity of single-ingredient products with the claim “just” ​on the front of packages. However, Dahlen stressed, Beech-Nut does not use the “just”​ claim if there is water or any other ingredient added to the product.

The firm undertook this transparency-fueled transformation​ at a time when sales of baby food were falling and many moms were opting to make their children’s foods at home, Dahlen said. He noted that the company is working closely with these moms to help them make homemade baby food and, when they don’t have time or access to desired ingredients, that they feel confident reaching for Beech-Nut products in those instances. 

Because the firm can provide moms with hard to come by or hard to prepare ingredients in its baby foods, Dahlen said he is not worried that parents will stop buying Beech-Nut and simply make their own versions now that it is publicizing its “recipes”​ through the percentage of each ingredient.

While Beech-Nut was plotting the big reveal of the percentages of each ingredient in its formulas for a while, Dahlen acknowledged that Beech-Nut fast-tracked the move when early last month the Center for Science in the Public Interest publically threatened to sue competing baby food makers for allegedly misrepresenting the amount of the ingredients in their product packaging.

Dahlen said the transparency helps reassure parents about the quality of its products in the face of the health advocacy group’s dispute with baby food makers.

Advertising of other manufacturers questioned

Specifically, CSPI threatened May 11 to sue Plum Organics and Gerber if they continue to allegedly misrepresent the proportions of their baby food ingredients on the front of packaging while downplaying their use of “unexpected and inexpensive”​ juices and water.

In a letter​ sent to Plum, CSPI accuses the baby food maker of “falsely and misleadingly”​ including on its Principle Display Panels images of “healthful, high value ingredients, such as kale, quinoa, blueberries and green beans, when, in the fact the products are overwhelmingly composed of other less healthful, less-valuable ingredients, such as apple juice or apple puree, that are not identified at all the PDPs.” 

The public health advocacy group characterizes this marketing tactic as “a bait and switch,”​ according to the letter.

Plum Organics says it has reached out to CSPI and has engaged in initial communications. It plans to continue discussions, and confirms that it has not been sued by CSPI. 

CSPI makes similar allegations in a letter​ sent the same day to Gerber.

Going beyond legal labeling minimums

Like Beech-Nut, Gerber is going above and beyond what is legally require by FDA to better communicate the contents of its baby foods.

Gerber responded to CSPI’s allegations in an open letter to parents that said it “is committed to clear and transparent ingredient labeling,”​ and that labeling regulations require ingredients to be listed “in order of ‘amount’ on every one of our fruit and vegetable purees.”

Dahlen said that Beech-Nut wanted to go beyond the legal requirement of simply listing ingredients in order of amount by weight and give the actual percentage of each ingredient to preempt any confusion or disappointment about the actual amount of primary ingredients in products with many ingredients. He explained that the primary ingredient in products with many ingredients could be as low as 20%, which might not meet parents’ expectations.

Gerber’s actions suggest it agrees with this sentiment. It goes beyond the minimum legal labeling requirement on some of its packages by adding visual “recipe equations,” ​and will expand the tactic to all of its pureed baby foods over the course of the next year. The change aims to better help consumers understand how much of each ingredient is in each product. These visuals will appear on the top of packages and will have a picture of each ingredient next to a verbal description, such as a photo of an apple next to the words“1/2 apple.”

Beech-Nut has more work to do

While a front-runner in transparently communicating with consumers, Beech-Nut still needs to address some elements of its products that do not mesh with its new image or millennial parents’ expectations, Dahlen said.

Specifically, he explained that some of the firm’s products have added sugar, and the firm is exploring how to remove the added sugar without sacrificing flavor and taste, such as by using natural sugar in fruits instead.

Dahlen said the firm has already removed other undesirable ingredients based on parents’ feedback, including added sodium and ascorbic acid, which parents told the firm they do not include in the foods they make for their children.

“We are always looking for ways to better meet moms’ needs”​ and we will continue to do that through increased transparency, healthier reformulations and new product launches, such as the firm’s launch of simply organic baby foods line this spring or the 100% Natural line previously, Dahlen concluded. 

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