What’s Wrong with the Mexican Baby Food Industry?

As a parent of a two-year old, I’m excited about the future memories our family will create exploring Mexico’s geographical, biological and agricultural diversity. Mexico ranks #5 in global biodiversity, and when it comes to food, is home to over 200 native ingredients that have merited Mexican cuisine a spot on UNESCO’s list of Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Our soil has provided the world with foods that are now central components of other cultural identities, such as tomato, cacao and avocado.

Yet there is one thing that is concerning as a modern Mexican parent, and that is the increasing rate of obesity and diabetes amongst our children.

The Problem

Mexico ranks #1 globally in childhood obesity; according to the latest survey by Mexico’s Secretary of Health, 3 out of 10 children are either overweight or obese. In parallel with obesity, our country also suffers from the highest rate of diabetes amongst OECD countries.

Studies at leading universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Newcastle (England) demonstrate that children’s eating habits during their first 1,000 days of life impact their risk of developing chronic diseases, such as obesity & diabetes.

As parents, we sought to understand what product characteristics might be contributing to child obesity & diabetes rates. So we compared baby food options in Mexico and identified two problems with the existing industry:

i) Baby food options consist of only 20 - 40% fruits & vegetables, are diluted with water, and include additives such as sugar, sodium and starch;

ii) Recipes are simple (i.e. apple, banana, pear), and no existing option leverages Mexico’s nutrient-rich foods to provide a healthy, and culturally relevant alternative.

Given the lack of nutritional value found in Mexican baby food, it is important to analyze the role of different stakeholders, as well as their interests, interactions and limitations. Below, we provide a summary of our findings:

Private Sector: A Low-Cost, Mass Market Strategy

Mexico’s baby food industry (excluding formula), is dominated by two large multinational corporations: Gerber, owned by Nestlé, and Kraft-Heinz. In order to penetrate a market where more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, products are priced as low as 7.50 pesos (US$0.40). Consequently, costs are kept down by diluting products with water, adding sugar to offset dilution, and including starch to thicken the puree (source: elpoderdelconsumidor.org).

How else does one make a low-priced product profitable? The answer is a mass market strategy where products are omnipresent in grocery, supermarket and hypermarket outlets throughout the country. Furthermore, existing companies manufacture their baby food in Mexico for distribution throughout 7 countries in Central America & the Caribbean, thus limiting their ability to customize products for nutrient-rich local foods such as avocado, amaranth, cactus, and others.

Thankfully, in December 2015 Gerber announced that it was removing sugar from its Mexican baby food products, something it had announced for its US baby food products back in 1996. But given the thousands of dispersed distribution points throughout Mexico, it may be a while before old products are finally off the shelf.

Public Sector: Excess collaboration with the Private Sector?

Government benefits tremendously from collaborating with the private sector in drafting regulations, and the baby food industry is no exception. Our review of NOM-131-SSA1–2012, the regulation that governs food products for children from 6 to 36 months, revealed that private sector actors such as Nestlé and Danone also played a role in crafting regulations.

Unfortunately, our review of the same document confirmed that there are no restrictions on the use of additives in baby food. Section 8.9.3 — Nutrients, mentions that sugars, syrups, starch and sodium are permissible ingredients. This is inconsistent with the World Health Organization’s recommendation that children avoid consumption of products with added sugar & salt during their first 2 years of life.

Thankfully NGOs like El Poder del Consumidor have long created campaigns to inform parents about the consequences of giving their children products with additives. NGOs, however, lack the monetary and political capital to change existing regulations.

The Consumer: Grappling with Unclear Information

The idea of individual choice & responsibility rests on the premise that consumers are well informed.

However, a recent survey by the Secretary of Health found that 86% of Mexican consumers understand little to none of what is on nutritional labels. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that there is no required nutrition education in schools, and as a result, many individuals grow up without a basis for calorie, sugar and nutrient consumption.

It would make sense, then, that most parents are unaware of what ingredients are in the baby food they purchase, and whether such products provide any nutritional value for their children.

What’s Next?

Mexico is the cradle of an astonishing variety of fruits, vegetables & grains that are valued across the world for their nutritional value. Yet our children have received the short-end of the stick in an environment with increasingly processed food options.

The road ahead includes an opportunity to leverage native Mexican foods to address our public health problems. Amaranth, for example, is used in rural communities to address malnutrition given its high protein and essential amino acid content; other foods such as avocado and cactus also aid in the prevention & treatment of diabetes given their regulation of blood sugar levels.

Food regulations and consumer awareness are two issues to address in the short-term, but for any solution to be economically sustainable in the long-term, it must leverage the nutrient-rich foods that have grown on our land for millennia.

Our duty as parents who are unsatisfied with existing baby food options is to create a solution that offsets the health risks our children face. That is why we started La Huerta de Elisa, Mexico’s first all-natural baby food company focused on native foods. You can learn more about our mission, and sign up to receive updates on our product launch, at lahuertadeelisa.mx.

Rosalino Molina is CEO & Founding Dad at La Huerta de Elisa.