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Organic baby food a hit with green parents

/ Source: The Associated Press

Pauline Amell-Nash worried that the pesticides and additives used to grow and preserve food were bad for her 1-year-old daughter Sophia, not to mention the earth itself. That’s why the pureed carrots, sweet potatoes and fruits Sophia ate were purchased from makers of organic baby food.

“She is so small I just thought that the more pure, honest things she ate would be better for her,” the Claremont, Calif., mother said. “I also thought it benefits the environment. I want to raise my child with an idea of social responsibility.”

The environment has become a very hot topic these days, especially among parents who want to protect their children’s health and the world they’ll be inheriting. Parents like Amell-Nash are propelling a surge in organic baby food sales, and that has prompted more companies to either join or expand their offerings in the sector.

Organic food still accounts for a tiny portion of the overall baby food market, but it is definitely growing. Whole Foods Market Inc. said it has tripled the space allotted to organic baby products in the last five years. Last year, baby food institution Gerber Products Co. rebranded and broadened its organic line, while Abbott Laboratories introduced an organic version of its Similac baby formula.

The rules of the organic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects food producers to ensure they meet its standards for organic products. They include banning the use of conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge for produce, and antibiotics or growth hormones for animals.

Organic baby food sales soared 21.6 percent to $116 million in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 24, after jumping 16.4 percent a year earlier, according to The Nielsen Company. Meanwhile, overall baby food sales rose 3.1 percent to $3.7 billion in the same period, after being essentially flat a year earlier. The data was gleaned from U.S. grocery, drug and mass market retailers, excluding Wal-Mart.

Gerber Products replaced its Tender Harvest brand last year with a line called Gerber Organics and added products such as cereals, juice and food for toddlers.

The change was meant to make it more evident that the food was organic, said Anna Mohl, vice president of marketing-infant nutrition at the baby food maker owned by Novartis AG and now being sold to Nestle SA.

“We needed to be more explicit,” Mohl said. While Tender Harvest, which was introduced in 1997, was selling well, its growth wasn’t matching the overall organic baby food category, she said.

Mohl said Gerber didn’t consider leaving the category because she believed moms wanted to purchase organic baby food from a brand they trusted. She declined to give the brand’s sales.

Big companies aren’t the only ones addressing the demand for organic baby products. Two years ago, Gigi Lee Chang started Plum Organics, a line of frozen baby foods, now a very hot area, according to Whole Foods officials.

Lee Chang got the idea to start the company when she heard friends talking about her son’s healthy appetite. She decided that the organic foods she had been preparing for him might be a good business opportunity. The products are sold nationally and an extension of the line is planned for later in the year.

Freezing in the freshness

Freezing the food instead of jarring it retained more freshness and nutrients, she said, adding, “By freezing, I’m trying to replicate the homemade aspect.”

Producers said adhering to the USDA regulations makes organic foods cost more but parents are willing to pay the difference.

For example, a 25.7-ounce container of organic Similac formula retails for about $27.50, while the traditional brand would cost $23.50, according to Scott White, vice president-pediatrics-U.S. at Abbott Nutrition. Gerber said its organic products cost about 30 percent more than its traditional baby foods.

Camille Fremed, mom to 20-month-old twin sons, said the additional cost isn’t a huge burden and believes organic is worth the expense. “I’ll scrimp on other things,” said Fremed, a tech project manager who lives in Ridgefield, Conn. She favored the Earth’s Best brand because it offers lots of variety.

White said Abbott entered the organic formula market because there was an interest from moms.

“There is no clinical evidence to say the product is better or healthier,” White said. “Moms feel better using it. It is a lifestyle choice.”

Worth it?

Doctors said parents shouldn’t feel guilty if they can’t afford the extra expense. The USDA doesn’t claim that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has no official stance on subject.

Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chief of neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and a member of the pediatrics academy’s committee on nutrition, said there is no evidence that organic baby food is better or safer.

Raisa Lilling uses organic food in meals she prepares for her daughter Elliana because it is less expensive than buying pre-made products. She notes Elliana hasn’t had many of the stomach problems and ear infections common in other infants.

“I believe she’ll be healthier as an adult,” said Lilling, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. “It is worth all the extra work.”