There has been an evolution in the baby food segment in recent years.
Highly processed varieties are being replaced with healthier products, and smaller companies are emerging to tackle the growing organics sector.
The format of baby food is also changing, with newer companies moving away from conventional canning and developing chilled and frozen ranges that resemble home-cooked meals while still being a convenient alternative.
These processing methods claim to keep the product fresher and safer for the consumer.
Today’s baby food manufacturing is comprised of more simple, conventional cooking methods rather than complex, sophisticated processing systems.
“From a processing perspective, it seems like baby food manufacturers are going backwards instead of forwards in the sense that cooking is becoming less about high-tech equipment and processes,” Boost Foods director and chef Geoff McEwan said.
“I think the days of cans and bottles are gone and that the future is fresh, which means less processing.”
Gold Peg, a supplier of direct steam injection continuous cooking technology and systems, believes they are meeting the demands of baby food manufacturers that want to maintain the appearance and flavour of ingredients for appeal and taste, while guaranteeing safety.
“The RotaTherm cooker is energy efficient and decreases the impact on ingredients to facilitate an organic, home-cooked appearance, while still maintaining high bacteriological kill,” Gold Peg marketing manager Paula Bell said.
The simple, home-style approach to processing baby food is governed by two main considerations: nutritional value and food safety.
The taste and appearance of the food are important.
The focus on nutrition in baby food manufacturing is of particular importance, given that babies require higher levels of nutrients in their diets than adults to facilitate normal growth and development.
This and parents’ desire to maintain their babies optimum health has spurred an increase in the organics baby food sector, which Woolworths says now comprises 15% of the Australian baby grocery market, and has also impacted on the format and processing of baby food.
Cooking plays a major part in the retention of nutrient value in raw fruit and vegetables.
A book written by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, USA, (1999) reported that food processing contributed to the health, safety, taste and shelf stability of a product though could also be detrimental to the nutritional quality of the food.
The time and temperature of processing, product composition and storage are all factors that substantially impact on the vitamin status of food, the book stated.
For instance in certain foods blanching, milling and extrusion can result in the loss of vitamins and minerals.
Chilled ready-to-eat baby food
Boost Foods, an organic baby food company, employs a manual, home-style cooking method for its Baby Boost brand.
The company was started in order to provide consumers with a convenient alternative to home cooked food that met similar taste and nutritional standards.
“The initial challenge we faced was how to replicate what is done at home by retaining all the vitamins and nutrients babies needs, and produce it on a commercial scale,” explained Geoff McEwan.
The result was a range of chilled baby food made from fresh produce.
Boost Foods takes a manual approach to cooking, utilising a thermal processing method in a steam jacketed kettle.
This is beneficial as it is able to monitor the profile of the food during the entire process, controlling the temperature and overall quality of the end product.
“We have adopted the ‘less is more’ approach and cook the product as little as possible,” McEwan said.
Thermal processing heats the product from underneath and from the side walls, resulting in fast cooking times and the retention of colour and flavour.
Minimal water is used for cooking which means nutrients are not drained with the water at the end.
The food is packaged in a soft pouch that has a shelf life of 100 days.
The pouch can be heated and the food served directly from it.
Food safety is ensured by pasteurising the product, as opposed to adding artificial preservatives and stabilisers.
Boost Foods maintains its labour-intensive cooking procedure still allows it to produce high volumes of product, but says it involves working harder for longer.
“Taking a manual approach as opposed to a mechanical may be more labour intensive but it’s also essential in ensuring the end product satisfies high nutritional and taste standards,” McEwan said.
Organic baby food company, Organic Bubs, also utilises conventional, manual processing methods to ensure its products boast high nutritional and safety standards.
The manual handling of the product and use of smaller, less industrial equipment allows the company to exercise control over the cooking temperature, as well as the taste and appearance of the product.
“We know there is sophisticated, industrial equipment on the market but we have a philosophy that if the equipment interferes with our quality standards then we will continue to do it by hand, despite the labour involved,” Organics Bubs director Anthony Gauldi said.
The innovative format of the baby food, being snap frozen, is also central to the company’s focus on nutrition and safety.
Having started manufacturing in May this year, Organic Bubs is currently the only company in Australia offering snap-frozen meals.
Frozen ready meals in the adult food category have been around for years, though have been slow to be taken up by Australian manufacturers in the baby food market given the perception by consumers that frozen is not healthy because it is not fresh.
Organics Bubs, on the other hand, believe that frozen is better than most fresh processing.
“If you can get fresh produce, process it straight away and blast freeze it, you can preserve the colour of the product, its nutrient content and its shelf life,” Gualdi said.
Blast freezing involves bringing down the temperature of the cooked food rapidly, from approximately 80 degrees to -22 degrees.
After cooking the product in steam injected kettles, the mix is put through a mouli to ensure there are no lumps in the product that the baby will not be able to swallow, and it is then manually scooped into PP5-grade plastic tubs.
One of the main benefits of steam injection cooking is that the product can be cooked at lower temperatures as it is cooked evenly throughout the whole pot and agitates as it goes.
“Making sure the food is not heated to high levels is essential to ensure more nutrients are kept in,” Gualdi said.
This method differs to that used by parents at home, as cooking on a stove involves heating food from the bottom up, but the end result — in terms of the taste, appearance and nutritional quality of the food — is similar due to Organic Bub’s hands-on approach.
Shelf-stable baby food
Heinz Australia, Australia’s leading baby food manufacturer comprising 78.9% of the wet baby food market, says its food recipes and the way they are developed also resemble home-made methods.
The company develops its recipes in 2kg pots which are only moved to 2000kg kettles for production once they have met its taste and nutritional standards.
Heinz employs a batch cooking method using continuous steam injection, with a specific volume of the recipe being cooked before being filled into individual vacuum-sealed glass jars.
A retorting process is then employed to finish the cooking and seal in jars.
Unlike conventional retort cooking, which often involves high-pressure steam to cook the product inside a can or jar and can result in over-cooking, the fact that most of the cooking is done in a kettle before filling results in the retorting process being less severe and helps to retain nutrients.
“Batch cooking ensures a high level of accuracy and control through carefully monitoring recipe preparation as well as ingredients and packaging components,” a Heinz spokesperson said.
The product is sealed in air-tight jars which preserves the product without adding anything artificial and prevents microbial contamination.
If stored in a cool, dry cupboard or pantry, the jarred baby food is shelf stable for at least three years.
The health and wellness trend has lead to new product development at Heinz under its Pure Start program.
Products in this range contain fresh produce, meat and grains, no preservatives, salt, colours or artificial flavours and now include varieties such as organics and vegetarian.
Consumer and retailer demand for less processed, more natural, and yet convenient baby food has resulted in a trend towards simple, conventional processing methods to ensure products retain high levels of nutrition and safety.
The types of baby food on offer will continue to evolve in line with consumer perceptions and tastes, and food manufacturers will continue to search for the best methods of meeting these demands, even if that involves less and less processing.