Danone talks early life nutrition: The first 1,000 days can influence health for a lifetime

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Danone discusses innovation in early life nutrition / Pic: iStock / Halfpoint
Danone discusses innovation in early life nutrition / Pic: iStock / Halfpoint

Related tags Infant formula Infant nutrition early years nutrition

Early life nutrition – from pregnancy to around two years – is a ‘critical period’ that can ‘positively influence health for a lifetime’, Danone Senior Medical Affairs Manager of Specialised Nutrition UK & Ireland, Zoe Ellis, tells FoodNavigator. What research, trends and opportunities does the French food giant believe will shape future innovation?

Danone produces brands that span ‘all stages’ of the first 1,000 days. Its portfolio includes household names like Cow and Gate and Aptamil.

“Within the baby feeding category, our focus is on supporting mothers with their babies’ nutritional needs during all stages of the first 1,000 days, from the start of pregnancy until a baby is about two years old, as it’s a critical period that can positively influence health for a lifetime,”​ Ellis explained.

The company, the Senior Medical Affairs Manager continued, recognises that breast milk is the ‘best source of nutrition for babies’. The ‘breast is best’ message is one backed by the World Health Organization, Unicef and numerous other national and international health bodies, who advise babies should be fed exclusively with breastmilk for the first six months of their life.

But when mothers can’t, or choose not to breastfeed, Danone is ready to meet the need with a ‘wide range’ of formula products.

The European baby food market is both large and growing. According to Mordor Intelligence, the Europe baby food sector is forecast to reach a value of €9.2bn by 2025, registering a CAGR of 5.2% over the next five years.

“The European infant nutrition category is indeed growing,”​ Ellis confirmed. And so is Danone’s infant formula revenue in the region.

Detailing its second half results – a period marked by the considerable turbulence and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – Danone revealed that European ELN sales witnessed a bullwhip effect as panic buying pushed revenue up 30% in the first quarter and ‘almost complete de-stocking saw sales down 10%’ in the second quarter. Nevertheless, overall trends remain positive.

Growth is being supported by convenience as well as innovation that offers consumers greater variety and more nutritional options.

“One factor driving growth in the baby food sector is an increased need for convenience. When it comes to weaning, mums and dads are seeking easy and convenient ways to feed their little ones on-the-go and we’re looking for ways to support them,”​ Ellis revealed.

Aptamil Multigrain Banana Berry Cereal
Danone also produces convenient weening foods like Aptamil Multigrain Banana Berry Cereal / Pic: Danone

Alongside formula, Danone’s portfolio includes various other convenient product propositions. “Cereals, trays and pots are seeing growth in the sector for their convenience, and more shoppers are entering the food segment as a result. Many mums use cereals in weaning as a simple way to gradually introduce new tastes and textures, for example,”​ Ellis told this publication.

The importance of the first 1,000 days

Danone’s innovation in infant formula – as well as other weaning foods – is underpinned by the scientific research undertaken through its extensive R&D capabilities.

“All of our products are based on years of scientific research and innovation, and our portfolio includes a range of formula products as well as foods. We also offer foods for special medical purposes, including the management of infant dietary conditions such as cow’s milk allergy and faltering growth,”​ Ellis noted.

“Science and research are hugely important to us. They are the key to understanding people’s nutritional needs and they are the basis for everything we do. For example, research shows us that the first 1,000 days is a critical development period for the gut and immune system that can impact lifelong health. Considering roughly 70-80% of our immune cells are in the gut – it’s clear just how important it is to get the right nutrition in this period and we create our early years products with this front of mind.”

The importance of this formative developmental period should not be underestimated, Ellis stressed. “The first 1,000 days, from the start of pregnancy until a baby is two years old, offers a unique and important window of opportunity to shape lifelong health. During this period a baby’s gut, immunity and other body systems are rapidly developing. It is well known in the scientific community and at Danone that the nutrition a baby gets during this time can influence how they develop, grow and learn, laying the foundations for a healthy future. Plus, the concept has also been highlighted by organisations such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, making it more widely recognised by parents.”

infant formula baby children iStock.com FamVeld
Nutrition in the first 1,000 days can impact long-term health outcomes / Pic: iStock.com FamVeld

Future innovation priorities

Deep insight into nutritional needs and the continued advancement of our understanding of early life nutrition form the foundation of Danone’s work in the area – and Ellis expects this to drive continued innovation.

“At Danone, we’ve spent over 120 years pioneering nutritional solutions. Our research and innovation continually evolve, building upon our insights into nutrients and their integral role in achieving optimal health. We use these insights to tailor evidence-based nutritional solutions for infants, young children, pregnant women, patients and the elderly, supporting them all through each important stage of their lives,”​ she noted.

According to the medical affairs expert, it is difficult to pinpoint a ‘single aspect’ of early life nutrition that is ‘most important’ – but it is evident that the first 1,000 days of life is a ‘crucial window of opportunity’ to influence longer-term health outcomes.

“The first 1,000 days are a time of growth unlike any other in our lives, as it’s a period that can have a profound effect on a child’s longer-term development. It offers a critical window of opportunity to shape life-long health. Our research and development teams are continually innovating, inspired by developments in nutrition and science, to develop our products for the first 1,000 days.”

The company has been able to leverage this understanding to bring unique value-added propositions to the market. “We were the first to include a specific blend of oligosaccharides in our early life nutrition products. Our blend of short-chain and long-chain oligosaccharides contains around 100 different structures and has been demonstrated to help the infant gut and immune system in a wide range of scientific publications,”​ Ellis elaborated.

Looking to the future, this focus on nutritional science and research will shape Danone’s innovation agenda in early life nutrition, Ellis predicted.

“Research will continue to drive all our innovations and we work closely with teams of nutritionists and dieticians, using their expertise to develop our health focussed product portfolio.”

She expects to see increasing opportunities around gut health as research into the microbiome develops apace. “The gut microbiome is now associated with several diseases, and there is an increase in the number of people suffering from inflammatory diseases like allergies, and autoimmune diseases. These all pose future health challenges, and modern lifestyles are frequently linked to the change in our gut microbiome which can have a long-term impact on our physical health. We also know that the gut microbiome and immunity are critical in the early years of development, including the first 1,000 days, so this is an area we will continue to focus on.”

Trust and transparency 

infant formula milk powder baby iStock.com vchal
Danone is leveraging digital technologies to boost transparency / Pic: iStock.com vchal

In early life nutrition – perhaps more so than any other area of the food sector – trust is crucial to success. Danone’s long history of innovation and research, built on nutritional science, helps provide parents with confidence that the company’s brands provide good nutrition to their babies.

“Maintaining trust with consumers will always be a fundamental priority for us. As a business we believe it’s important to provide parents with the support and information to feel confident that their little ones are getting the nutrition they need,”​ Ellis stressed.

Danone is also working to maintain a trusted relationship with its consumers through increased transparency. As FoodNavigator reported in February, the company recently launched a Track & Connect service​ for infant formula brands Aptamil and Nutrilon across markets including Australia, China, France, Germany and New Zealand. 

“This is a digitally enabled service powered by blockchain, serialisation and aggregation technology that gives parents, consumers and retailers greater transparency on the farm-to-fork journey of our formula products,”​ Ellis explained.

“By scanning the two QR codes using a smartphone, every pack can be traced back to the date and time it was produced in our factories – empowering parents with knowledge of the journey that our formulas take. After purchasing and opening the sealed pack, shoppers will then be able to scan the second of two codes, triggering a one-time, initial message, verifying the product is authentic and tamper proof.”

The company hopes to leverage this kind of technological development further still, Ellis revealed.

“In the long-term we’re hoping to develop the technology even further. The ambition is that the Track & Connect service will help create a personalised system that supports parents through after-sale services and keeps them connected with their chosen and post-purchase.”

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