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Baby food and infant formula: Formulation and fortification challenges

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Fortification plays an important role when manufacturing products for babies and toddlers – but how can taste and texture be balanced with these very specific nutritional profiles?

Bellamy's Organic, a premium infant formula and baby food producer, was founded in 2004 by a mother based in Tasmania. Her founding mission was to make simple, nutritious organic food and baby formula.

Today, Bellamy's is one of Australia’s top organic baby food and formula brands, and is now exporting to six Asian countries – China, US, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Vitafoods Insights spoke to CEO Tarsi Luo about the challenges of creating products for this very specific consumer group.

Tailoring nutrition for children

“We know childhood is a time of rapid growth and development, and optimal nutrition is essential,” said Luo. “Children need fat and carbohydrates for energy, protein for muscle growth and repair, calcium and vitamin D for growing bones and teeth, iron for proper blood cell formation, and zinc for optimal physical development.

“Because of this, we have produced specific nutrient criteria to guide the development of products, based on local and international scientific and government standards, and the science for healthy eating. The nutrient criteria have also been reviewed by nutrition experts and our paediatric dietitian.”

Having an in-house paediatric dietitian is “crucial” for Bellamy’s business, she said, as it is widely accepted that food companies should play a role in promoting a healthy diet and lifestyle for children.

“Worldwide, children are currently eating an excess of energy-dense and relatively nutrient-poor foods, posing greater risk of lifestyle-related disease,” she said. “There’s growing awareness that a nutritious diet in the first 1,000 days has many benefits and can help reduce the risk of serious health problems in later life.”

Fortified infant products: Getting the right formulation

Fortification plays an important role when formulating products for babies – but what are the challenges, and how can this be balanced with those specific nutritional profiles?

“Fortifying food products plays a very important role in improving the nutritional quality of a food and helping to meet the nutritional needs for children at different stages of growth,” said Luo. “Some of the formulation challenges when developing fortified products can include nutrition degradation, reduced shelf life, and changes to the characteristics of the final products, such as appearance, texture, smell, and taste.”

A lot of baby food products use naturally sweet vegetables, such as carrots, which can drive up products’ sugar content. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a warning in 2019 after its research found that a majority of baby foods derived as much as 30% of their calories from sugars. Luo said Bellamy’s follows advice from health authorities like the WHO and the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

“The current scientific evidence supports the inclusion of the natural sugars found in milk and fruit as part of a healthy balanced diet,” she said. “We are committed to offering products only naturally sweetened with fruit and dairy and do not add fructose, glucose, and sucrose to our children’s products. We are also committed to not adding any artificial sweeteners to our portfolio.”

Heavy metal contaminants and safety concerns

In recent years, some manufacturers have been in the spotlight owing to concerns around the presence of heavy metals in infant and toddler foods. Excessive exposure to these contaminants may cause cancer and other adverse effects – effects that infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to because of their immature development and high “food intake/body weight” ratio, as outlined last year in a Frontiers in Nutrition review.

However, in the US, infant formula and baby food does not legally have to be tested for heavy metals, leaving children at risk of exposure to toxic levels of these contaminants, whereas the European Union Reference Laboratory for Heavy Metals and Nitrogenous Compounds sets standards for regulating levels of unwanted contaminants in infant nutrition.

Luo said food authorities in Australia have advised that parents should not be concerned about the safety levels of heavy metal contaminants sold there and that exposure does not present a health risk. She added:

“Bellamy’s Organic maintains the strictest safety standards for our products. We adhere to the safety levels on heavy metal contaminants set by Australian and international food safety authorities.”

Manic for organic: Sector continues to grow

Organic foods are produced – those that are grown or farmed without the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have grown in popularity in recent years. Luo pointed to reports from 2021 showing that household spending on organic food by Australians increased 13% since the pandemic hit, adding:

“We are seeing a similar trend in baby food and infant category, with organic products growing almost 30% faster than the non-organic segment within the baby food category.”

This trend is echoed across Europe: in 2020, the number of organic producers in the EU increased by 1.6% to 349,499 compared with the previous year, according to statistics from IFOAM Organics Europe. Over the same period, the EU’s organic retail market enjoyed record growth of 15.1%, reaching €44.8 billion, making it the world’s second-largest market after the US.

Luo said: “The Australian Certified Organic Standard is one of the most respected and rigorous standards in the world for organic production. Organic farms are only certified after they have been operating according to organic principles for three years.

“At Bellamy’s Organic, our products are dual-certified organic by National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Certified Organic and Australian Certified Organic which is certified by the Australian government.”

Asked how the increased public appetite for organic might affect Bellamy’s work in future, Luo said it would not have an impact, “as we have always been organic, so we continue to stay true to our brand promise and founding mission”. However, she described the increased public awareness as “great”, adding: “We’re delighted that more and more consumers are coming on board with our thinking.”

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