To put words into the mouths of babies of the 80's: What will my Yuppie parents be feeding me? Aside from homemade Cuisinart concoctions, what does the $650 million baby food industry have up its corporate sleeves?
At H.J. Heinz Co., the latest answer is a "drum-dried" instant line that sounds like the equivalent of backpack food for babies. Heinz' "flakes" come in 23 flavors, including mixed vegetables or chicken noodle dinner, and all you do is add water.
According to Ida Laquatra, nutritionist at the Heinz Co., the impetus for a dried product was the result of the company's market research that showed three consumer trends:
* Processed baby food buyers don't like jarred products because of waste. Baby food in jars has a refrigerator life of about three days after opening, while the dried instant can be mixed in whatever amount is needed; the remaining contents of the foil-lined canister, with its resealable plastic lid, last for two weeks.
* Parents are increasingly concerned about commercial baby food ingredients; the dried products -- although nutritionally equivalent to jarred products -- contain no modified food starch, salt or sugar as some jarred baby foods do. Laquatra said that while some nutrients are lost in the drying process, nutrients are lost "during any processing," and that the instant fruits and cereals are fortified with vitamins.
* Parents travel a lot with their babies these days, said Laquatra, and the dried foods won't break in a diaper bag or require refrigeration.
Gerber, the country's leading baby food company, introduced a line of Chunky foods for toddlers in 1981, replacing another Gerber line called Toddler foods. According to company spokesperson John Whitlock, Chunky foods -- for children 1 to 3 -- are designed as a convenience food for toddlers with two working parents.
In addition, since 1974, according to Dr. George Purvis, Gerber's vice president of nutrition sciences, the company has gone from being strictly a baby food company to an "infant care company." Gerber has purchased numerous firms that manufacture everything from car seats and high chairs to baby clothes.
Last April, Beech-Nut introduced a line of "Stage" foods, which come in three stages, starting with single ingredient foods, going to mixed foods and ending up with mini-bites. Beech-Nut also has a line of Table Time foods, for ages 1 through 6.
Not suprisingly, according to Richard C. Theuer, vice president of research and development and director of medical services at Beech-Nut, the company's Stage 2 foods that contain yogurt are becoming increasingly popular. "Among Yuppies, yogurt is perceived to be a healthy food," said Theuer.
As for yogurt and Yuppies, there are those who think that the baby food industry is missing a viable market when it comes to providing fresh-food-minded baby boomers with equivalents for their offspring. In the Dec. 31 cover story in Newsweek magazine entitled "The Year of the Yuppie," Faith Popcorn, president of a marketing and advertising firm called BrainReserve, said that she has recommended to her food manufacturer clients that they develop a line of "fresh baby food" products, but has been met with little interest.
In a telephone interview, Popcorn said that certain large companies are so used to manufacturing with preservatives and additives that they "can't allow the idea of fresh." Popcorn's idea of fresh baby food might be to offer the finest quality pure'ed fruits, meat and vegetables displayed in a deli department or yogurt-type container, an idea that might cause concern about sanitation, spoilage and babies' sensitive digestive systems. (Theuer of Beech-Nut said there is a "common misconception" that baby foods contain a lot of preservatives. Theuer said the reason they can stay on the shelves so long is because they are sterilized during canning.)
Other critics of baby food manufacturers have recently complained that the industry has taken a step back when it comes to nutrition.
In response to public pressure, in the late 1970s, Gerber, Beech-Nut and Heinz removed sodium from their strained and junior foods. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently complained to the Food and Drug Administration that Beech-Nut's Table Time Foods and Gerber's Chunky Foods contain "excessive" amounts of sodium, above those recommended by the National Academy of Sciences for children 1 through 3 years old.
Since the organization's complaint, both the FDA and the USDA (which regulates products that contain meat) have engaged in a letter-writing squabble with Gerber and Beech-Nut. Discrepancies exist between Gerber and the agencies about the statistical procedure of arriving at a sodium declaration, and the company says part of the problem has to do with the serving size on its Chunky foods label, which it now says may actually be closer to two servings than the "one" written on the jar.
Both companies disagree with the agencies over their interpretation of the academy's sodium recommendations for toddler-age children and contend that the sodium content in their toddler foods is actually lower than comparable table foods such as grilled cheese or canned spaghetti products.
Letters from Sanford Miller, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, to both of the companies reiterate the agency's belief that the sodium contents are "excessive" and state that because of recent publicity over discouraging salt from baby foods, parents might also assume that the toddler foods contain little or no added salt compared to "adult" foods.
Presently, Purvis of Gerber says the company is investigating changing the serving size on its jars as well as lowering the amount of sodium. Although Theuer of Beech-Nut said the company doesn't "think it the sodium content is excessive," the company is working on "getting it down."
Nevertheless, the poundage of commercial baby food has been steadily growing since 1979, according to Sales Area Marketing Inc. (SAMI). Poundage was 1.163 billion in 1979, 1.333 billion in 1983.
Beth Adams of Heinz attributes the increase to the late '70s decision to remove salt from strained and junior foods, that commercial baby foods have a healthier, more wholesome image. However, Alan Miller of SAMI said that since 1979 sales of chunky and toddler type foods have actually decreased, indicating that perhaps parents are skipping that stage and returning to table food for toddlers instead.
There are at least a couple of new, small rumblings to provide "fresh" and "natural" baby food alternatives to the masses.
Two farmers, one in Vermont and one in Canada, are growing grains organically to be processed into baby cereals. Organic Farms, a Beltsville wholesaler, will be selling both cereals.
And, a Manhattan woman is in the planning stages of opening a boutique for fresh strained baby foods, to sell such items as "nice veal cutlets" in "nice little bags." The foods would be quick to reheat, some frozen, perhaps made for microwaves. The woman, a self-described Yuppie with an eight-month old baby, said she wants to provide an alternative to busy working mothers who are frequently stuck with feeding their babies jarred food.