A Food Every Mother Could Love
By Sarah Fister Gale
The notion of organic baby food makes sense to almost everyone. Babies are a clean slate. They give their parents the opportunity to make all the right decisions for them–including what they eat – to make sure their children are happy, healthy, brilliant and successful.
Becoming a parent makes people rethink what they put in their bodies, and by extension, what they put in their children’s bodies. Seeing their babies, pure and helpless, dependent on them for every decision, the last thing parents want to do is feed them baby food laced with harmful pesticides. The idea is shocking for many parents, even those who have never bought an organic product in their lives.
Alarming evidence about pesticide levels in food draw in new parents, looking for healthy choices for their children. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group, offers a guide to the pesticide levels in fruits and vegetables commonly sold in grocery stores, basing the findings on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the guide, the highest pesticide levels in conventional produce are found in apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries—many of the ingredients found in babies’ early foods.
For parents concerned about the impact of conventional farming practices on their children’s health, organic baby food is an obvious choice, and Earth’s Best brand of baby food is the most well-known option on the market today.
Pesticide-Free Baby Food
The people at Earth’s Best were equally concerned about harmful pesticides in baby food when they launched the business 20 years ago. Earth’s Best Baby Food was the brainchild of twin brothers—Ron and Arnie Koss—who started their Vermont-based organic food company in 1985. They wanted babies to begin their lives with wholesome and safe foods based upon organic farming practices designed to enrich the Earth’s soil and water supplies for future generations.
The Koss brothers didn’t like that fact that traditional baby food recipes included many refined and overly processed ingredients and were alarmed by the amount of agricultural chemicals found in conventional foods. They believed sustainable farming methods, modeled after nature’s systems and processes, offered a healthier alternative that would allow them to create whole, pesticide-free ingredients for their organic baby food.
The vision of these Vermont brothers coalesced a broad base of enthusiastic supporters and by 1987, they had opened their first organic food processing facility in Vermont. In the early years, the business employed 20 people to produce three simple fruit purees and two vegetable purees, but the demand for safe organic baby foods was growing quickly and Earth’s Best stepped up its plans to service the needs of concerned American families.
By 1989, Earth’s Best had added eight more fruit purees and several baby cereals to its product line which were then introduced to the grocery marketplace through Kings & Grand Union grocery stores in addition to its already highly successful nationwide distribution in health food stores.
In 1995, Earth’s Best flavors had expanded to more than 50 products, including innovative dinners, breakfasts, vegetable blends, fruit blends junior foods, and infant cereals. In 1996, the company was purchased by Heinz USA. It continued to launch new organic products, including infant first foods of simple fruit and vegetable purees and toddler whole grain bars to satisfy the still growing demand for more nutritious, healthy organic foods.
In 2000, Earth’s Best was acquired by the New York-based Hain Celestial Group, a natural and organic food company, where the line now includes 80 products for babies and toddlers, including infant cereals, jars, teething biscuits and the new Sesame Street Toddler line.
All of the products are certified organic and free of genetically engineered ingredients (GEI). Even though products using GEIs are not required to say so on the label, Earth’s Best labels all of its products as “no GEIs.” To make the statement of no GEIs, a company must set-up strict purchasing specifications and undergo rigorous testing to prevent accidental contamination.
To ensure quality and adhesion to all of its standards, all ingredients purchased are rigorously tested to make sure they are free of any pesticide or potentially harmful residues. All ingredients at risk for genetic modification, including canola, corn, soybeans, tomatoes, squash and potatoes, are also tested to ensure that no modification is present.
Huge Growth for the Brand and Category
Earth’s Best has enjoyed a leadership position in U.S. natural food stores since its inception, and continues to grow faster than the category. It is also the fastest growing organic baby food brand in U.S. grocery stores today. “We are growing in leaps and bounds,” says Kim Bremer, category group manager for infant and toddler feeding for the Earth’s Best brand. Sales of the Earth’s Best product line were up 49.7 percent in grocery stores, and 26.5 percent in natural food stores since last year. Already a mainstay in popular conventional and organic grocery stores, the brand recently gained national distribution in 770 Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores, giving it even broader reach.
While the brand has been the industry leader from the beginning, Bremer notes that the 2002 introduction of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), and the certified organic label, caused sales to spike. “It really changed the way Americans view organic products,” she says. “They make decisions based on that seal.”
Bremer also notes that baby food is one of the four gateway products that draw in non-organic consumers, along with dairy, produce, and soy products.
Organic food purchases has become common across the United States, with consumers from all walks of life choosing organic over conventional, however organic baby food still ranks among the most popular product categories. Sales of organic baby food jumped nearly 18 percent since 2004, double the overall growth of organic food sales, according to the marketing information company ACNielsen. Sales have increased 57 percent since 2001, with total organic baby food sales hitting $90 million in 2005.
The Parent Connection
Because baby food has such a short lifespan for users—the average infant begins eating baby food at three to six months, and moves to solid food around his or her first birthday—the brand must constantly replenish its consumer base with new parents or parents having additional children. “The challenge for us has always been to spread the word and increase awareness about our brand,” Bremer says.
Earth’s Best is able to remain a market leader in this popular organic category, thanks largely to its close relationship with consumers. “We are always talking to new mothers,” she says, noting that most of Earth’s Best marketing focuses on moms. The company constantly conducts research through market studies, website connections and face-to-face interactions. “We target mothers, but that’s a very diverse group,” she points out. “There are working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, single parents. They have one child or four children. And whoever they are, they wear a lot of hats.”
Every new Earth’s Best product is a result of these interactions that help to identify what mother’s needs are. “What they all have in common is that they want to do what’s best for their children and organic baby food is an easy solution to feel good about,” she says. “They love the product, it tastes good because it’s real food, and there are no harmful pesticides in it.”
Based on feedback from mothers, the company constantly evolves its products and packaging to appeal to their changing needs. “New product innovation is important to us,” she says. “It’s what drives our growth.”
For example, in late 2000, Earth’s Best transitioned almost all of its organic baby food production to meet kosher guidelines with packaging identifying it as certified Kosher.
Similarly, in early 2001 it became the first organic baby food company to ban all genetically engineered ingredients from its products.
Along with tracking food trends, the company also found mothers repeatedly asking for more convenience in the way its baby food is packaged and prepared so that it can be used on-the-go. For example, many babies eat a mixture of cereal and strained fruit for their first meal of the day, which means mothers have to prepare the cereal and mix it with the fruit before babies can eat, which makes feeding babies outside the home challenging.
“Convenience is very important to mothers who are constantly on the move,” Bremer says.
These requests resulted in the launch of the Wholesome Breakfast line of ready-to-eat blends of cereal and fruit, such as Pear Apple Oatmeal Wholesome Breakfast. that ease the morning rush and still provide babies with a healthy breakfast. "It takes the time out of mixing breakfast,” she says.
Earth’s Best also offers single-serve cereal packets for on-the-road feedings.
When Baby Grows Up: Good Habits for Life
In 2005, the brand took its foray into toddler foods even further with the launch of its Sesame Street line of breakfasts and snacks for toddlers 18 months and older.
Even though close to 90 percent of organic baby food purchased last year was in the “early foods” category, which includes pureed fruits and vegetables for young infants, Earth’s Best recognized a growing need for foods that appeal to older children.
Earth’s Best had received repeated requests over the years from parents who love the brand but had nowhere to go when their babies got older.
“They were outgrowing the baby food and there was nothing out there for their toddlers,” she says.
The company filled the void through an innovative partnership with the Sesame Workshop and its Healthy Habits for Life program. Sesame Workshop’s multi-year, content-driven initiative is designed to help young children and their caregivers establish an early foundation of healthy habits that can last a lifetime.
The program harnesses the power and reach of the U.S. Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) longest running children’s television show, Sesame Street, to educate children and parents about how overall health and well-being is crucial to early development in much the same way the program has helped children learn to read and write for decades.
In conjunction with the Sesame Street program, which encourages healthy eating, active lifestyles and opportunities for children to build self-confidence and personal success, Earth’s Best launched a line of 12 toddler and preschool breakfasts and snacks that are specially formulated for toddlers and are an excellent source of iron, zinc and six essential vitamins, and have zero trans fats. Certified organic and kosher , with no genetically engineered ingredients, the Earth’s Best Sesame Street product line meets the needs of parents transitioning their babies to solid foods. All of the products were formulated with the help of a nutritionist to ensure they are healthy and appropriate for young children. Each product box is also emblazoned with Elmo, Big Bird and other characters from the popular TV show.
“Research shows that toddlers snack 10 to 12 times per day,” Bremer says. “This line offers them many little meals that are low in sugar and fortified for the needs of toddlers. It’s food that parents can feel good about.”
The next step for Earth’s Best remains to be seen, says Bremer, but the company is always on the cutting edge of product development and constantly looking for ways to serve the needs of moms and kids. “You never know where we will go next,” she says. “It’s a constantly evolving brand and we are always looking for new ideas. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Sarah Fister Gale is the editor of Organic Processing Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.