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By Annie Gasparro
The biggest hit in baby food in decades is in trouble.
Pouches of puréed fruits and vegetables have dominated growth in the baby-food aisle over the past decade because of their convenience. The boom has ended.
Sales of baby-food pouches were flat last year and dropped 0.8% in the year through Nov. 3, according to data from market-research firms Spins and IRI. Overall, baby-food sales in the U.S. rose 2.4% to $1.64 billion in that period.
Companies that banked on pouches are under pressure to rethink the packaging in light of some doctors' concerns, environmental impacts and the latest trends in baby food.
Natalie Pollard said she and her husband relied on pouches with her first son. But they struggled to get him interested in solid foods later, so they avoided pouches with their second child.
"It made our first son less open-minded to the textures and tastes of actual foods," she said. "Our second son is a better eater, and I wish I didn't do pouches with my first one."
Plum Organics, now owned by Campbell Soup Co., pioneered the pouches in 2008 as a less messy way for babies to feed themselves. Pouches helped boost sales when baby-food makers were struggling with lower birthrates and a trend toward making purées from scratch. They also gave manufacturers higher profit margins than traditional baby food.
But over the past year, anecdotal evidence and related research have led to a backlash from some pediatric feeding specialists and speech pathologists. They say that sucking food from pouches can inhibit babies' oral development and lead to poor eating habits.
"I have seen many babies who have trouble progressing to finger foods because the parents relied on pouches for too long," said Natalia Stasenko, a pediatric dietitian. "It's probably fine to use pouches from time to time. But we now see that their use is by far too excessive."
Some parents also take issue with the fact that pouches aren't easily recyclable, are typically twice as expensive as jars, and the first ingredient is often fruit -- which means more sugar. Meanwhile, more people are jumping straight to whole foods for their babies, skipping purées altogether.
While the growth has stalled, baby-food pouches still make up about a quarter of infant and toddler-food sales, according to market-research company Nielsen.
Pediatric feeding specialists and companies say there is insufficient research on the developmental risks of eating from pouches. There is currently a study in New Zealand looking at the potential impact pouches have on children's teeth and overeating. A study in Birmingham, U.K., that began in the 1990s found that children who ate only purées until they were nine months old had long-term feeding problems, such as eating fewer vegetables at seven years old.
Some makers of baby food encourage parents on their websites or packaging not to let their babies suck on pouches. "Squeeze into a bowl or onto a spoon," the packaging on Gerber's infant pouches reads. Gerber is owned by Nestlé SA.
"We recommend children don't suck on the pouch," said Meghan Rowe, who co-founded the White Leaf Provisions baby-food company. "But it's not that big of a deal to suck on pouch as long as they aren't exclusively doing that."
Beech-Nut, owned by Hero Group, says it advises parents to start with its glass jars rather than pouches. It also is considering putting instructions online to spoon-feed babies, but there isn't room for that on the pouches themselves, said Ximena Acosta-Molina, Beech-Nut's director of brand management.
Responding to the developmental concerns associated with pouches, some companies are offering baby food in cups and jars. Danone SA's Happy Baby, one of the biggest pouch brands, introduced jars last year.
"We can all say that the pouches can be spoon-fed to younger babies, but in reality, that's not how they are being used," Happy Baby Chief Executive Anne Laraway said in an interview.
Once Upon a Farm, a refrigerated baby food that made its debut with pouches in 2015, added cups earlier this year, saying babies under nine months old are too young to eat from pouches.
Lil' Gourmets, a startup in Chicago, introduced its baby food in cups rather than pouches last year because founder Shibani Baluja said she saw too many downsides to pouches.
"When kids are sucking it down, they aren't really tasting the flavor," she said.
The German Society for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine advises that babies and young children not eat directly from pouches, saying they may delay or hinder learning to eat from a spoon or learning to eat finger foods, among other issues.
In Europe, baby-food makers are selling disposable spoons with pouches to encourage parents to dish out their contents.
In the U.S., many companies say they have been more focused on a shift to organic ingredients and making pouches recyclable, rather than getting rid of them. Nestlé said preliminary findings from its 2016 study on feeding infants and toddlers indicate that only a "very small percentage" of children eat more than one pouch a day.
"We want babies to practice chewing and swallowing," said pediatric feeding specialist Melanie Potock. "But parents love the convenience of pouches."
Kimberly De la Garza, a 30-year-old mother in Dallas, said she likes that pouches make less of a mess than scooping food out of a jar and spooning it to her two children. Her kids love them, too.
"My two year-old just says, 'Pouch? Pouch?' over and over again. She can't get enough," Ms. De la Garza said.
Write to Annie Gasparro at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 23, 2019 07:17 ET (12:17 GMT)
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