The infant formula market is dominated by bovine milk, with just a small percentage based on plant-based ingredients. At the same time, in adult nutrition, plant-based is booming.
Regulation plays a role here. As infant formula is one of most strictly regulated product areas, plant-based opportunities are limited. In Europe, for example, just one plant-based protein is approved for sale in the infant formula market: soy.
The sector is so tightly regulated for a reason. “Infants are the most vulnerable sector of society…because of their development stage, their weight, and the restriction of variety within their diet,” explained Jessica Burt, a specialist lawyer in food regulatory, marketing, and product liability at UK law firm Mills & Reeve.
Whether stringent regulation could be impeding regulation in this category is likely.
“Stringent regulations can impede innovation, however it is important to have clarity, more than anything, in research and development [when] working out what is possible or not,” Burt told FoodNavigator.
“On the other hand, however, if the entirety of plant-based products is excluded from infant formula…then there isn’t the incentive for research to go into how safety issues connected to this can be avoided.”
In Europe, Danone has sought to find a middle ground. The company claimed an ‘industry first’ earlier this year when it launched a new infant formula that blends plant and dairy ingredients under its Nutrilon brand in the Netherlands.
Sixty percent of the proteins in its Dairy & Plants Blend baby formula come from soy, and 40% from dairy.
The innovation aligns with Danone’s acknowledgement that babies have ‘different feeding journeys’, Manuela Borella, VP of Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration explained. “We want to ensure that new parents feel supported, no matter their parenting style, their feeding choices, or family situation.”
Developing the new product was a ‘logical’ decision, given the uptake of plant-based foods across the board, suggested Borella. “Already seven in 10 parents prefer their children to each more plant-based foods or that one in four households are already introducing plant-based foods to their toddlers.
“Blending plants and dairy ingredients is our response to ensuring that those parents who have chosen to be flexitarian or vegan or vegetarians can feed their babies how they think best, without any nutritional compromise.”
Elsewhere, companies are innovating with 100% plant-based infant formulas – and some are soy-free. In Australia, childhood nutrition company Sprout Organic has developed a rice-based infant formula.
“The predominant ingredient in the product is rice. Rice is the most well-tolerated ingredient, pretty much globally,” co-founder Selasi Berdie told this publication. The proteins are sourced from a blend of rice and protein, which goes through a multi-stage fermentation process to boost bioavailability and digestibility.
In Australia, as well as in some parts of Asia, these proteins are approved for the infant nutrition market “Each country has different food standards and codes,” explained Berdie.
Local food standards require a certain quantity of macronutrients, micronutrients, and specific ratios of ingredients, the co-founder continued. “We do the exact same thing as a bovine equivalent…the difference is, we can say – hand-on-heart – that…we don’t have the added sugars and added intolerances that might be found in a bovine formula…”