With organically grown ingredients and ethnic diversity, foodwise,you've come a long way, baby

July 08, 1992|By Ginger Munsch Crichton | Ginger Munsch Crichton,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

Hey, baby, what's for dinner?

Might be organically grown rice and lentils, with a carrot-parsnip mix on the side and guava juice. Maybe even a papaya-pineapple dessert.

In the $1 billion-a-year baby food industry, organic and Hispanic foods are among the latest items competing for pint-size palates.

These consumers may not have much to say about the variety of foods available. But they do eat a lot of them -- an average of 500 jars during the eight to 12 months that a child usually is given prepared baby foods.

Traditional baby foods, such as rice cereal, pureed bananas and strained carrots, still make up the bulk of baby-food business.

But as companies jostle for parents' attention -- and dollars -- they're introducing more exotic options, including baby soups and bottled water.

Parents may be impressed with the wider selection, but they should remember infants don't need a big variety to be happy or healthy, says Joel Steinberg, director of medical affairs at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

His advice: "Choose the type of baby food you're going to continue with later. . . . If you don't eat beets, don't give your baby beets."

Although it can be cheaper to make baby food -- or, as with apple juice, just to buy adult versions -- busy parents seem to find it easier to use prepared baby foods.

"Baby food definitely provides convenience to those who want it," says Coni Francis, a registered dietitian.

Baby food has changed considerably since it was introduced 60 years ago. Salt and MSG are no longer added to infant products, and sugar is added only occasionally. Single-ingredient foods have been introduced to better meet babies' need.

Gerber has about 70 percent of the baby-food market, followed by Beech-Nut and Heinz, which split most of the remainder.

But a fast-growing fourth national company is 5-year-old Earth's Best, which makes organic baby food. Although organic foods make up a tiny percentage of baby-food sales, Earth's Best sales have grown an average 70 percent a year.

Organic baby food costs roughly 50 percent more than conventional baby food. That works out to about $4 more a week for the typical baby.

Heinz plans to start organic lines, according to spokesmen.

But Gerber recently introduced 16 items under the Tropical label, targeted specifically for the Hispanic market. The foods include a beans-and-rice dinner, corn cereal and tropical juices.

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