Vegan food for babies: One step at a time?

Global vegan food market for babies is expected to grow at a 20.5% CAGR from 2022-29, driven by its health benefits, increase in the willingness of parents to spend on their child’s nutrition, lactose intolerance and ethical consumerism. Currently, this niche market has very few players and presents an exciting opportunity to those planning to enter into this business.

Vegan baby food

Image credit: Café Nutrition

Consumers across the world are increasingly concerned about climate change and its ensuing effects on the environment. In other words, there is a surge in ethical consumerism which is impacting consumption trends across various industries. Be it sustainable fashion or the drive towards electric mobility, millennials all over the world are opening up to purchasing goods and services produced in a way that minimizes social and/or environmental damage. The food and beverage industry is no different as eating habits are changing too. Ethical Food Global Market Report 2021: COVID-19 Growth And Change To 2030 estimates the global ethical food market to grow from US$ 542.84 billion in 2020 to US$ 574.42 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.8%. Veganism is an offshoot of this trend.

An estimate by Grand View Research states that the global vegan food market size was valued at US$ 15.08 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 10.6% from 2022 to 2030. One of the major reasons for this was the rising awareness of various health benefits (eg maintaining BP & lower cholesterol) offered by plant-based food products has increased the consumer base of this industry. The concern about animal welfare is also a reason for the rise of this diet.

Within this market, a small segment has been slowly and steadily taking ‘baby steps’ – the vegan food market for toddlers. The plant-based baby food products market for infants between the ages of four months and two yearswas valued at US$ 8.71 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach the value of US$ 38.72 billion by 2029, growing at a CAGR of 20.50% during the forecast period. Data Bridge Market Research attributes this surge to growing global infant population, increasing disposable incomes and associated health benefits in brain development and memory enhancement. The study states that Asia-Pacific (APAC) dominates the plant-based baby food products market, and it is expected to grow at the fastest growth rate in the near future.

Vegan food for toddlers: Yay or Nay?

One of the most pertinent things to keep in mind is that the early years of a child are crucial to his cognitive development. The question often arises that do plant-based baby foods carry the same nutritional value as their dairy and meat counterparts? Will they lead to a child’s cognitive and physical development?

One of the key concerns about vegan food is that are they may be low in certain nutrients which are easily found in animal products such as vitamin B12, Creatine, Carnosine, vitamin D3, DHA and Taurine.

Before delving into what studies have to say on this, let’s take a look at the key nutrients required by toddlers and the vegan food sources offering the same:

  • PROTEIN: Pulses (peas, beans, lentils, soya), grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, pasta, bread), dry fruits, meat substitutes and nut butters.
  • CALCIUM: fortified vegan milks and juices, tofu; blackstrap molasses; baked beans; textured vegetable protein (TVP) and dark green leafy vegetables.
  • CARNOSINE: Asparagus .
  • VITAMIN D: Sunlight, margarine, some vegan milks and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • VITAMIN B12: Soy, enriched yeast extracts, breakfast cereals and shiitake mushrooms.
  • CREATINE: Seeds (pumpkin, sesame) and nuts walnuts, almonds, pine nuts), legumes (beans, peas), and seaweed.
  • IRON: Beetroot, pomegranates, cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.
  • ZINC: Pulses, nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and quinoa.
  • VITAMIN B12: Nutritional yeast, tempeh, fortified plant milk and breakfast cereals.
  • DHA: Flaxseed, Chia Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Walnuts and Brussel Sprouts.
  • VITAMIN A: Carrots, sweet potatoes, dried apricots, kale, spinach, butternut squash, papaya, red peppers and tomatoes.

Numerous studies have concluded that plant-centred diets – vegetarian (not just vegan) – are safe for children. For example, a longitudinal study of children aged from six months to eight years in the US found there was no evidence of clinically meaningful differences in growth or nutritional status for children with a vegetarian diet in contrast to their omnivorous counterparts. Similarly, another study notes that plant-based drinks for toddlers can provide bioactive compounds such as PUFA and phytosterols. It recommends the use of soy milk in particular owing to its higher protein content along with some of the other nutrients necessary for a child’s development – vitamins A, B12, D and calcium. It recommends that:

Given the fish restriction in vegetarians/vegans and the fact that plant-based drinks provide high amounts of phytates and tannins, which act as antinutrients, a good strategy for the industry would be to fortify plant-based drinks with iodine and zinc to improve the nutritional value of products aimed to vegetarians/vegans.

Who are the key players and their customers?

A few months ago, multinational food conglomerate Nestlé made headlines for introducing a vegan formula for infants containing proteins derived from potatoes, peas, quinoa, oat flour and sunflower. The product is developed for 1-3 age group and is a source of vitamins A, C, B2, B12, D, calcium & iron, as well as iodine, and Omega 3 & 6. Similarly, Australia’s Sprout Organic has developed a rice-based infant formula that is rich in ARA, DHA, minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium, and vitamins like vitamin C, niacin, vitamin E, folic acid and vitamin B12. Another company with vegan baby food is HIPP. It has a range of organic vegan baby food jars. USA based vegan food brand Tiny Organics has recently expanded its range of whole veggies-forward finger foods for children as young as 4 months. Some of the other major players in the global vegan/plant-based baby food segment are Abbott (U.S.), Reckitt Benckiser Group plc (U.K.), Danone S.A. (France), China Feihe Limited (China), The Kraft Heinz Company (U.S.), Hero Group (Switzerland), Yili Industrial Group Co. Ltd. (China), Kewpie Corporation (Japan) and Royal Friesland Campina N.V. (Netherlands).

Currently, vegan food is a medium of choice for families with higher disposable incomes. According to a study by Frontiers on consumer perceptions of plant-based and clean meat in 3 of the most populous nations of the world (China, India & the US), higher familiarity predicted higher acceptance of plant-based and clean meat across all countries. In other words, vegan baby products can do well in countries with a fairly young demographic dividend and high per capita income. Further, such products would work well for children with medical conditions like lactose intolerance or societal situations such as rise in working mothers or those infants who have been adopted and can’t be weaned.

Major market barriers and overcoming them

While vegan baby food market has very bright growth prospects, there are a few obstacles that could stunt its growth. One such situation is parents adopting treatments for lactose intolerance such as lactase enzyme supplements. The next challenge that could lead to a slow picking up of these products is their high cost. Another issue is that consumers may think that vegan and vegetarian foods do not taste as good as plant-based ones. Last, but not the least, like any novel invention, there are myths about vegan food not being healthy enough for a child’s holistic development.

The good news for companies with vegan baby food is that they can overcome most of these hurdles with a little bit of planning. They need to enhance their R&D facilities to improve the taste and nutritional value of their products while bringing down their production costs. Lastly, they need to educate their customers by informing them about the health benefits of their products. Some of the marketing strategies that they can adopt to facilitate this include – online and offline ads, roping in celebrities for encouraging reference group behaviour and transparent packaging & labelling.

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