ALBANY, N.Y. — Babyfood used to have an image as stable — and bland — as a jar of strained peas. And its target market was limited to, well... babies.
Old-school glass jars of applesauce are still around, but these days they share shelf space in the babyfood aisle with curious (and often organic) combinations like zucchini, banana and amaranth (it's a grain) packed in brightly colored pouches intended to be squished and slurped by consumers with little — and not so little — hands.
“What we try to do is engage them, stimulate all of their senses,” says Paul Lindley, founder of Ella's Kitchen babyfood, a pioneer in the use of pouch-style packaging. “Not just their taste sense, not just putting a spoon in their mouth or a pouch into their mouth ... but to try to stimulate all their other senses.”
Welcome to the world of premium babyfoods, part of a $1.5 billion industry that's no longer just about babies. Babies don't generally care much about food packaging. But toddlers, older children and convenience-driven parents do.
Pouches have allowed babyfood makers to broaden the appeal of their products beyond the traditional babyfood years. Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for the Hain Celestial Group, maker of organic brand Earth's Best, says pouches have helped fuel 11 percent growth at Earth's Best even as the U.S. birth rate declines.
“It's allowing us to age up. Where moms may have stopped babyfood at 9 to 12 months, the pouches have really helped extend the shelf life of babyfood,” she says. “We see growth for a long time to come.”
Obviously, the premium trend also is about what's in the pouches. And increasingly, it's organic. While organic accounts for only about 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, organic babyfood represents a more impressive 21 percent of that category, says Putman.
Premium babyfoods also bridge the gap between the parents who feed out of jars and those who prefer a make-it-from-scratch approach, creating a middle ground both sides of that parenting debate are more comfortable with.
Florence sees Sprout as a way to expose more young eaters to a wider variety of more flavorful foods. His own “Aha!” moment came when a friend's toddler was spitting up old fashioned jar food. Florence steamed and pureed carrots, and the boy licked the bowl clean.
“If you're feeding a child just sort of green gruel out of a jar and they're spitting it up all over their shirt, they're saying, 'Listen, I don't like this stuff,'” said Florence.
Organic pouches can run $1.69 for 4 ounces, compared to 99 cents for some jarred food.
Still, Meagan Call of Cleveland, Ohio, says she can get them on sale for about $1. Call sees pouches as a healthy alternative to sugar-heavy juice boxes for her 18-month-old son.
“They're more like smoothies,” Call said. “That's what I see it as. I'm giving him smoothies and smoothies are fairly healthy as long as you don't overdo it.”
Not everyone is cooing over pouches, though.
One common criticism is that in some cases a pouch will read something like “spinach and apples,” giving an impression of a vegetable-rich meal even if the ingredient label lists more apples than spinach. More pointedly, some critics claim that parents tend to over-rely on pouches.
Dina Rose, a sociologist who writes the “It's Not About Nutrition” blog, said while pouches can be a beneficial “bridge” to fresh fruits and vegetables, they are no substitute.
“It lulls people into thinking that they've done their fruit-and-vegetable job. So they're done,” Rose said. “And it gets them out of what they think of as the struggle to get their kids to eat fruits and vegetables.”