According to Regina Lee Fechter, VP of innovation and e-commerce at Happy Family Organics, which makes shelf-stable products for expecting moms and infants to babies, toddlers, and kids, the overall market for fresh baby food has not performed quite as well as some retailers and players in the space may have expected.
"We’ve seen a lot of retailers pull back tremendously... they weren't getting those incremental sales from the fridges, because in reality they had to discontinue so much space [to make room for fresh baby food brands] and then people didn’t necessarily want to pay the premium price points," Fechter told FoodNavigator-USA, referring to a few retailers who have tested and decided not to expand in-aisle fridge pilots designated for baby food.
Fresh Bellies decided to discontinue fresh baby food completely and focus solely on kids snacks, citing cost and logistics barriers. Tiny Human Foods, which still makes a suite of fresh baby food products, has switched from retail to a 100% direct-to-consumer model, with founder Ashley Rossi noting, "I’ll be happy to revisit retail when they prioritize baby food the way they do pet food. That level of commitment is just not there for the stores."
In terms of areas where retailers are prioritizing more space, organic baby food has become the biggest driver of growth for many stores.
"The tremendous growth of organic has been huge," said Fechter. "When you think of the overall MULO category, in 2016 it was 26% organic, and now in 2021 it’s 37.6. We’ve basically seen a 10-point growth in organic, and we know that baby food is the leading edge of organic food as a category," she said.
Shelf-stable vs. fresh: Which has the nutritional edge?
So does the reluctance some retailers have towards carrying fresh baby food mean parents have fewer quality options in-store? Not at all, argued Fechter, who clarified that shelf-stable baby food products such as the company's jars, pouches, and jars have a positive role to play in a baby's nutrition and developing a taste for nutrient-rich foods.
"When we talk about fresh vs. shelf-stable. Of course, something that is refrigerated and has a short shelf life has a taste benefit and certain other benefits, but when you truly do look at nutrition to nutrition, the shelf stable aisle is providing a tremendous amount nutrition at a more affordable price point," said Fechter.
When comparing Happy Family's shelf-stable mango pouch to Once Upon a Farm's refrigerated mango SKU, for instance, the nutrition deck is nearly identical, claimed Fechter.
Fechter explained that Happy Family Organics uses a traditional hot-fill process in which its baby food is heated to above 180°F (the temperature exact temperature depends on product type, time, and pH) for a short amount of time before packaging resulting in a product with 12-month shelf life and substantial nutrition profile.
Fechter noted how certain vitamins such as vitamin C do begin to degrade at higher temperatures, but argued that "nobody’s low on vitamin C in America," and clarified that the company includes vitamin C in its initial recipes that undergoing hot filling to help balance PH and extend the shelf life of its products.
'We need the industry to lean in on veggie-only'
Happy Family Organics is continually pushing the nutrition standards of its products with the introduction of more unsalted and unsweetened veggie-forward options such as its Savory Blends line -- launched as part of the brand's commitment to Partnership for a Healthier America's 'Veggies Early & Often' campaign -- featuring pouch SKUs such as Purple Carrots & Cauliflower with avocado oil and oregano and Broccoli & Carrots with olive oil and garlic.
"People have always done fruit and veggie mixes, but it’s still a little bit of a fruit-forward thing, and we need the industry to lean in on veggie-only," said Fechter.
And while a constant pain point for parents has been getting their child to willingly eat vegetables at least without strong resistance, Fechter shared that Happy Family Organics promotes that parents adopt an 'every bite counts' mindset when feeding their child.
"When you have a baby that’s between six and 10 months old, that’s a window of opportunity because babies will [at least] try everything. Every nutritional morsel matters," she said.
While Happy Family's portfolio includes well over 100 products addressing virtually every nutritional need state of a child's development, Fechter added that the company is continually exploring other areas and segments including more meal time solutions and snacking options.
Missed Part I of the FOOD FOR KIDS Interactive Broadcast Series covering Early Childhood Nutrition? Listen ON-DEMAND HERE, and be sure to tune into Part II of the series addressing the Kids Snacks category.