Baby-food makers hustle to keep up with savvy consumers

Posted by
May 1, 2014


When the book Making Your Own Baby Food, co-authored by consumer advocate James S. Turner, who now chairs Citizens for Health, first appeared more than 40 years ago, the idea of doing such a thing seemed perhaps a bit radical to many if not most Americans, and was considerably ahead of its time.

But these days, the concept is one that has quite literally ’hit home’ for untold numbers of savvy consumers, who feel it’s the best way – perhaps the only way – to make sure their kids get the proper nutrients and to encourage them to become healthy eaters right from the start.  In fact, according to an article in The New York Times, homemade purees, prepared with the help of new blending appliances,  now account for about a third of the baby food consumed in this country.

But it’s more than just kids on whom this trend seems to be having a profound effect.

Maker of commercial baby foods, whose sales have been slipping for nearly a decade – by an average of more than four percent a year — as a result of so many mothers opting to make their own, have responded, as the Times article notes, by “competing head-on with mom’s kitchen.”

And the result has been the introduction of some far healthier products and brands – including organic ones and new lines featuring fresh ingredients without any additives or preservatives – than you would have found on supermarket shelves 20 or 30 years ago.

In that regard, ‘we’ve come a long way, baby’ since the days when baby-food manufacturers were lacing their products with the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, a substance that can have a particularly harmful effect on young and vulnerable brain cells.

But such attempts by the industry to keep up with alienated parents who have literally been taking matters into their own hands should tell us something important that doesn’t just apply to baby food. It’s a prime example of how the marketplace works – and how it can be made to work by conscientious consumers.

A lesson in consumer power

Left to their own devices, most food companies will follow the paths of least resistance.  One such path is to cut corners – for instance, by substituting high fructose corn syrup, a cheap laboratory concoction linked to obesity, diabetes and other adverse health effects, for natural sugar. Another is to use the most convenient short cuts available to sell a product, prime examples being the addition of monosodium glutamate and other harmful forms of free glutamic acid to “enhance” the flavor of foods and the use of artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil, now acknowledged to cause thousands of fatal heart attacks every year, to increase an item’s shelf life.

But when knowledgeable shoppers begin to resist these pernicious practices in large enough numbers – by boycotting the products at issue and by making it quite clear to the companies that make them why they’re doing so – and that gets reflected in shrinking profit margins, you can bet they’ll soon start to abandon the use of these atrocious additives.

By the same token, when consumer demand for healthier products, such as organic foods, starts to increase, you can be sure that more of them will suddenly start appearing on store shelves – and at much cheaper prices.

So, no, the baby-food phenomenon isn’t just about baby food. In its profound influence on the marketplace, it has demonstrated in a very big way just how much power you as a consumer have over the companies you buy products from – not just purchasing power, but the power to dictate how those products will be manufactured. But only if you choose to use it – because if you don’t, those companies will be the ones calling the shots and limiting the choices you have available to you.