The first 1,000 days of life refers to the time spanning roughly between conception and 24 months of age, or a child’s second birthday.
According to global charity UNICEF, the first 1,000 days could also be termed ‘the brain’s window of opportunity’, since it is when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established.
Indeed, ‘opportunity’ is the right designation. “It is a really crucial time of growth and development for babies and little ones, with the brain in particularly having the fastest development rate during this time,” explained Rosie Henderson, who heads up marketing at UK baby food company Piccolo.
“If you get the nutrition right during this time, it can be a really optimal time for growth, from good cognitive development to strengthened immune systems and good physical functioning.”
But if malnutrition occurs during the first 1,000 days, it can lead to stunted growth, cognitive impairment, and increased risk of chronic disease later in life.
Brands, and the baby food industry as a whole, can do more to support families in their feeding journeys, suggested Henderson at FoodNavigator’s Positive Nutrition Summit in central London last week. Getting the first 1,000 days right, she stressed, can lead to ‘better lifelong health’.
Brands are responsible for offering nutritional variety for babies and children that cater to specific period of development. For Piccolo – which makes infant and follow-on formula, meal pouches, smoothies and snacks – its advice is to ‘stick to the government regulations’.
By working with nutritionists and paediatricians, brands will be able to provide nutritious and tasty products for children, she told delegates.
Not all children are going to like certain foods straight away, however. It can take up to 12 tries of a specific food before a baby begins to like it, the marketing lead explained. Further, a baby may like a food product one day, and not the next.
“In our innovation pipeline, we understand it’s about giving a variety of flavours. We used to go down the Mediterranean flavour route only, but we’ve found that many palettes are open to different flavours. Offering different cuisines, different tastes, and different herbs and spices can change things up for them,” Henderson explained.
“Maybe they won’t like banana with yogurt, but if you mash it up with something else they might like it.”
Functionality in the baby food category
Ingredient functionality is also on Piccolo’s radar, having observed greater focus on individual health benefits in international markets.
US-headquartered Cerebelly, for example, focuses specifically on brain development. This approach is backed up by findings that 60% of a baby’s calorie intake is used for brain development, and that by two years of age, 80% of the adult brain is formed for the baby.
Cerebelly’s products contain 16 key nutrients children need to support brain development, including iron, zinc, vitamin A, and lutein.
Another US-based brand, Serenity Kids, has a greater focus on protein with ingredients including collagen from grass-fed cows. The company’s recipes aim to mimic the macronutrients of breast milk, with the ‘right’ balance of fat, protein and carbohydrates for babies over six months old.
Henderson lamented that some ingredients available for baby food brands elsewhere are held back by stringent regulations on home soil but is pleased to be the first UK baby food brand to incorporate flaxseeds into product formulation.
Piccolo will not be able to make claims around flaxseed’s potential benefits to digestion, but believes influencing good gut health from an early age is important.
Transparency and affordability
Piccolo prides itself on championing ‘clean, honest labelling’ across its product range. But Henderson said most would be ‘surprised’ at the amount of misleading information presented to consumers within the baby food category.
Sugar content is an obvious target for dishonest brands, suggested the marketing lead. Indeed, just last year, research conducted by campaign group Action on Sugar in the UK revealed ‘worrying’ levels of sugar added to baby and toddler foods, with some containing four teaspoons of sugar per pouch.
“It’s our role to call [this out] and put pressure on other brands through the industry to make them put all their…ingredients lists [clear] so consumers know what they’re buying and don’t feel misled,” said Henderson.
For consumers looking to purchase Piccolo’s products, ‘what they see on front-of-pack is what they’ll get’, explained the marketing lead. “We’ve always kept our boundaries. Our founder Cat [Gazolli] has been super passionate about [being] transparent regarding what’s in our products.”
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, affordability cannot be ignored. And given that healthy products can tend to be more expensive, the responsibility falls of food brands’ shoulders to make their products more affordable, Henderson suggested.
“How can we make healthy options cheaper…? It’s important brands still continue to invest with promotions and discounts,” we were told. “Some have stopped, which makes it unfair to expect people to continue to buy into your brand.
“It’s about working with suppliers to get these costs down again at some point. And investing in the promotion…”