In a move sure to shake up the baby food business, the Baker/Beech-Nut Corp. today announced it will no longer add salt, artificial flavors, artificial colors of flavor enhancers to its line of baby foods, and also will eliminate added sugar from all but the products that require sweetening to balance natural acids.
Such a step has long been urged by nutritionists who claim that the additives in baby foods serve only to satisfy the taste buds of adults who do the feeding, but provide no nutritional benefit to the child and can, in the case of sugar, lead to problems such as an early sweet tooth and excessive sugar consumption later on.
A number of prominent consumer advocates today hailed the step. And while they tried to divorce themselves from endorsing Beech-Nut's "Naturally Good" products specifically, they nonetheless lent themselves to what appears to be a major publicity and marketing compaign by Beech-Nut to increase its present 15 per cent share of the $450 million baby food markey through this move.
New York City commissioner for consumer affairs Eleanor Guggenheimer attended the publicity luncheon launching the new products. She admitted in brief remarks to the press that it was "frankly an unusual role" for her to be associated with a specific brand name, but called the Beech-Nut action "a breakthrough" that "delighted" her. And she said she hoped other baby food companies would follow suit.
A spokesman for Gerber Products Co., which dominates the baby food business with a 70 per cent share of the markey, did not see this as a breakthrough but called it "a very, very well done marketing ploy" that "isn't anything new."
"Our reaction is that were glad to see them come along," the Gerber spokesman added, claiming that his company never has used any artificial colorings or additives in its baby food lines, that it now markets 89 varieties of baby food with no sugar added and 54 varieties in which there is no salt added, and that it, rather than Beech-Nut, has led the way in this development. Gerber, however, markets close to 200 different baby products, which means that many of them still have extra salt and sugar in them.
The Gerber sopkesman said that the Beech-Nut line "probably will have some temporary effect" on relative market shares and that Gerber is "looking at various things we might do within our existing product line" to counter the move.
The third major company in the baby food business is Heinz U.S.A., a division of H.J. Heinz, wiht a 15 per cent share of the market as well.
"Our baby foods are already naturally good," responded Beth Adams, manager for consumer and employee communications at H.J. HEinz. She said that Heinz baby food products also have no preservatives, flavor enhancers, artificial colors or flavors added.
"Regarding sugar, 58 of 108 varieties have no sugar at all, and salt is added to less than two-thirds of our varieties to supply needed nutrients and to provide appeitte appeal." Adams said. "But this is noly according to the level recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. We feel that this addition of this very modest amount of salt will prevent the feeding parent from adding any."
Adams said that the Beech-Nut step was "certainly not anything earthshaking as far as changes in a product are concerned," and as for a marketing response, "we don't feel we can improve on our baby food at this point."
Janet Tenney, a food and nutrition specialist in the office of consumer affairs for Giant Food Inc. in Washington, said that Beench-Nut has "clearly gone further" than either Gerber or Heinz in elimination salt and sugar and she expressed pleasure with this development.
Giant, however, does not carry any Beech-Nut baby food on its grocery shelves - only Gerber and Heinz. Tenney said her office had made a recommendation to Giant's marketing staff to look into this matter, "but there are a lot of actors that go into a marketing decision, a d maybe we don't have the space to carry all three."
Tenney said she could see no reason for adding salt and sugar to baby food exvept to increase its aplatability to adults. "The babies are already getting it naturally in the food, because there is plenty of sodium (which salt supplies) already there, and as far as sugar goes, the complex carbohydrates (of nauural sugars) will do as well" as the refined sugar that is added, she said.
She admitted that Beech-Nut was engaged in a marketing drive through today's action, "but from the point of view of the nutrionist, there is also nothing wrong with carrying what is a good product."
Ironically, Beech-Nut was involved in a controversy earlier this year when it sent out letters to 760,000 mothers of infant children in 20 states warning them that certain home-made baby foods, such as spinach puree and carrot juice could produce "methemoglobinemia," a deadly disease from "which baby's skin turns blue and asphxiation could result."
The letter was called "a scare tactic" and four mothers in San Francisco sued Beech-Nut for false advertising. The case is still pending.
Baker/Beech-Nut president and chairman Frank C. Nicholas in response to a question today partially recanted and declared that "what we said in the dear mother letter was technically correct, but we said it very poorly."
He said mothers who prepared baby foods at home "are to be congratulated," and that they were usually seeking to provide a more natural diet to their child than was availabel in store-bought products. But he noted that preparing baby food is very time consuming, and that home cooking conditions were not always sufficiently sterile.