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Baby food industry taps into growing Latino market

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Photo: www.beechnut.com/Goya Photo: www.beechnut.com/Goya
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"Can you say guava?"

More babies might say yes now thanks to new baby food flavors designed to target Hispanic mothers. The targeted baby food will be available in markets across the country.

Spicing up baby food isn't an indication of a cultural revulsion to standard foods such as pureed peas. It's a sign that Hispanic families have arrived – at least if you count targeted products as the welcome mat – and a marker that our palates collectively have changed as a result.

And, of course, that there is a growing market that hasn't yet been tapped. That's what companies like Goya and Beech-Nut are trying to change.

"I think one of the most interesting things is, the Hispanic mom, she used to want to make everything from scratch. Authenticity is the No. 1 value among moms. She really is afraid she's going to lose values, tradition and language."

- Linda Gonzalez, CEO of multicultural marketing firm Viva

"Each person will take it from a different perspective," said Joseph Perez, senior vice president of Goya. "Hispanics will say, ‘oh they're remembering us [and our needs]' and others will say more flavor variety will expand the taste buds of our children."

Baby food is big business. Globally it is a nearly $40 billion industry, expected to grow to nearly $47 billion by 2016, according to a report by TechNavio, a research firm. In the U.S., baby food sales exceed $4 billion.

The ethnic baby food market is just emerging and is doing it on a global scale, according to a lead analyst from TechNavio. While there have been small regional attempts to provide foods with local flavors, international baby food safety standards and limited operating budgets have restrained growth so the lion's share of the market is up for grabs.

In the U.S., Latinos are the predominant group to cater to – but elsewhere in the world, Asians are looking to see more variety.

Reports in the last five years have repeatedly shown that the Hispanic population is younger than the general population (average age is 27, compared to 37 for the general population), is more family focused and has demonstrated that they've been able to sustain their culture over generations, more than other ethnic groups.

Hispanics' wealth and their disposable income have also been skyrocketing, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth. The result is a ripe market for baby-related categories, such as baby food.

So it isn't suprising that actually Goya and Beech-Nut are not the first to try to tap the Hispanic mommy market. Gerber tried about eight years ago with a line called "Recetas Latinas" – which included jamon y salsa de papaya (ham with papaya sauce.)

That line of baby food was available in Hispanic neighborhoods but the feedback was that Latinas didn't need to be approached differently than any other consumer, said Wendy Johnson-Askew, vice president of corporate affairs at Nestle, Gerber's parent company.

But apparently it hasn't fully given up on the Hispanic market. Gerber is expecting to add guava and mango to their baby food line.

This time, though, they will steer away from distinct packaging or giving the foods a new name, she said.

"We are offering ingredients with much a more complex flavor profile," said Johnson-Askew. "We are trying to bring that into [mainstream] markets so there can be a melting pot of food for babies."

While Hispanic mamas may be an untapped market, their interest in food is nuanced – so what will drive them to purchase items may be complicated. They may prefer to be approached as a mother rather than a Latina, but they have a set of cultural values they are trying to maintain, advertising experts said.

Yes, Latina moms are unhappy with flavors available in baby food, according to a study done by Goya and Beech-Nut. But Latina moms shop for foods with wide eclectic tastes, according to a study by Meredith Hispanic Ventures. 

And one of the concerns that Hispanic mothers have is losing touch with their culture and their culinary roots, the experts said.

"I think one of the most interesting things is, the Hispanic mom, she used to want to make everything from scratch," said Linda Gonzalez, CEO of multicultural marketing firm Viva and board member of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. "Authenticity is the No. 1 value among moms. She really is afraid she's going to lose values, tradition and language."

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