The fall of the baby food market, in three charts

Nearly every American knows Gerber, the royalty of the baby-food aisle.
Nearly every American knows Gerber, the royalty of the baby-food aisle.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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The first jars of pureed fruits and vegetables marketed as baby food appeared on US grocery shelves in the late 1920s. Parents rejoiced. By the 1950s, 90% of US babies were slurping up store-bought purees. Marketed as a convenient, modern, healthy way to nourish an infant, prepackaged baby food was an unchallenged staple of the American infant diet for decades.

Canned baby food’s dominance started to ebb in the 1970s, amid a growing cultural interest in breastfeeding and more “natural” approaches to childrearing, but remained a steady seller. Recent years, however, have proved hard times for the commercial baby food industry, including formula, as demographer Cheryl Russell noted recently on her blog, Demo Memo.

As US birth rates have declined, there have been fewer babies to feed.

There’s also been a major shift in US parents’ belief in what constitutes the best diet for a baby. Breastfeeding rates have risen, particularly among high-earning mothers. The organizations that advocate for breastfeeding also tend to encourage parents to make their own baby food once infants start eating solids.

The result is a steep drop in baby food sales (which includes sales of infant formula). From 2007 to 2009, the average US household spent $42 per year on baby food. Between 2015 and 2017, that number was just $24.

As with nearly all things parenting-related, baby food sales tell us less about infant nutrition than they do about cultural attitudes towards raising children, as New York University food-studies professor Amy Bentley told the Atlantic in 2014.

Canned baby food is “a product, like many products, with a series of tradeoffs. If you’re gaining convenience, you may be sacrificing control over quality, or taste, or nutrition. If you want to make your own baby food, then you’re sacrificing time,” said Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet.

“It’s complex because a lot of women get pleasure out of making their own baby food. Just as we joke about baking cookies being a symbol of a mother’s love, well, preparing baby food can be a symbol of a mother’s love,” she continued. “But not all women want to do that, or not all women can do that. So I think this anxiety embedded in feeding one’s children is constant over the story of baby food.”

This article has been updated to clarify that “baby food sales” includes sales of infant formula.