The importance of early life nutrition

Posted: 22 November 2019 | | No comments yet

New Food spoke to Gary Elliot, Head of Category & Shopper Marketing at Danone Early Life Nutrition, about the importance of healthy eating for babies and the responsibilities that retailers and food manufacturers have.

What is your role at Danone Early Life Nutrition?

As Head of Category and Shopper Marketing at Danone Early Life Nutrition in the UK, I look after educating and engaging consumers, retailers and other stakeholders on the importance of bringing health through food during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. My focus is on creating and delivering innovative shopper activations across channels, including in-store displays and online and store engagement for early life nutrition, which includes our leading brands, Cow & Gate and Aptamil.

Why is baby nutrition critical in the first 1,000 days?

The first 1,000 days of a baby’s life – from conception through to their second birthday – are a period of rapid growth and significant development. We know from more than 40 years of research that during this period, babies’ guts and immune systems are developing rapidly while, at the same time, they are moving from a protected environment in the womb to one where they are exposed to many immune challenges.1

These first 1,000 days set the blueprint for a child’s lifelong wellbeing, so good nutrition and establishing positive eating habits during this time play a key role in building long-term health.

What is Danone doing to help provide babies with nutritional food?

Science and innovation are fundamental to our business, the early life nutrition category and the health of future generations. Given the vulnerability of our consumers, we are committed to the highest nutrition and quality standards. We make significant investments in R&D to provide safe and high-quality products that meet the specific nutritional and local needs of all mothers and infants.

A big part of our commitment to nutrition is also to ensure we are providing education and other support services to help new mums and dads through their parenthood journeys. To this end, we offer personalised support for mums through a 24/7 care line supported by expert healthcare professionals.

What are some of the trends you are seeing in the baby feeding category?

Increasing consumer interest in health and nutrition means we are seeing a growing demand for ‘better for you’ products across all categories of the food and drink sector, including baby feeding. Most recently, there has been greater emphasis placed on sugar reduction in baby foods. At Danone, we invest heavily in scientific research and product development to help babies get the right nutrition early in life. For example, in our recent Cow & Gate cereals portfolio re-launch, almost half of the range contains at least a 40 percent reduction of naturally occurring sugars per 100g.2

We are also noticing an increasing demand for convenient baby food packaging which offers quick and simple solutions for parents, allowing them to spend more time enjoying the experience of getting to know their little ones. Almost half (48 percent) of UK parents say that they want baby food packaging that is quick and easy to use and mention package resealability as being particularly important.3 In our recent Cow & Gate cereals relaunch, we also switched products across stages one and two to new-look, mess-free, resealable packaging to cater to the growing need for convenience. We are also seeing this trend for convenient on-the-go solutions reflected in the liquid formula milk category which has experienced a +5.5 percent year-on-year volume growth.4

What can food manufacturers and retailers do to help give babies the best possible start to life?

We believe that manufacturers and retailers have a shared responsibility to ensure transparency across the category. All parties have a part to play in giving parents easy access to clear, reliable and helpful information to support them in making the best possible choices for their child’s health. When it comes to the baby feeding category, feedback from consumers tells us that shopping for baby food is sometimes confusing and time-consuming because they are faced with so much choice. Our labelling clearly signposts the product’s target age group and differentiates the different stages of the feeding journey, in addition to highlighting the key nutritional values and ingredients. We recommend that retailers group baby food products by stage, so that parents can easily and quickly find the products that are right for their child’s age, and make sure that education and advice is readily available in-store.

We value developing close relationships with retailers to share knowledge and consumer feedback. From improving the product packaging of our own brands, to the effective merchandising of stores across the whole category, Danone works closely with retailers to make baby feeding ranges easier to shop for parents. We also work with retailers and pharmacists to develop educational content for parents and customers related to health and nutrition in the first 1,000 days. By equipping retailers and pharmacists with the right information, we are all working together to support new mums and dads through their parenting journey.

What effects can a high intake of sugar have on infants?

High sugar intake and poor nutrition can significantly impact a child’s health, particularly in the first 1,000 days, which can shape a child’s eating habits for the future. The NHS reports that more than one-in-five children are overweight or obese when they begin school.5 Public Health England (PHE) has responded to this with a renewed plan of action and we are committed to working with PHE to continuously improve the nutritional quality of the category.

Is the industry catering with sugar-free, reduced sugar options for infants? If so, what? If not, why not?

At Danone, we know we have a duty to act responsibly and we are continually making progress to ensure our products meet the highest quality standards. We are also seeing this reflected in product ranges available across the baby feeding category. For example, in our Cow & Gate cereals products re-launch across stages one and two earlier this year, almost half of the range contains at least a 40 percent reduction of naturally occurring sugars per 100g2.

How can food manufacturers work with retailers to grow the baby feeding category?

At Danone, we work with retailers of all sizes to help educate parents throughout their baby feeding journeys. Retailers provide us with consumer feedback that helps us to develop new products that cater to consumer needs and, in turn, we give retailers the information they need to guide parents as they shop for their little ones. For example, we worked with H & Jodie’s Nisa Local in Walsall to help boost their baby feeding category value sales by 84 percent. This growth was made possible through a few simple changes such as separating baby food products from others to ensure a clear distinction, stocking an optimal core range in each sub-section and merchandising products in a logical order for easier navigation.

Similarly, we used retailer feedback to inform part of our category approach through the launch of new jar recipes in July 2018 that brought variety and interest to what is often seen as a traditional segment.

What more should be done in the development of nutritious infant food?

Keeping up-to-date with the latest innovations and regulations is key. We are committed to offering parents and babies high-quality products based on the latest science and nutrition advice. For example, we launched six new recipes and flavours with no added salt or sugar as part of our Cow & Gate Little Bowls range (age seven months+) in a new format designed to help parents bring their babies on the journey to the family table.

About the author

Gary Elliott is Head of Category Development, Shopper Marketing and E-commerce at Danone Specialised Nutrition, responsible for the Baby Feeding category. Gary looks after educating and engaging consumers, retailers and other stakeholders on the importance of bringing health through food during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. His focus is on creating and delivering innovative shopper activations across channels including in-store display, online and store engagement for early life nutrition.

Gary has 20 years’ experience in Category Management and Shopper Marketing spanning across both retail and manufacturing. Prior to Danone, Gary led Category, Shopper and insights teams for Tesco, Mars, Cadbury and GSK.


1: Wopereis H, Oozeer R, Knipping K et al. The first thousand days – intestinal microbiology of early life: establishing a symbiosis. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2014; 25: 428-438.

2: At least 40 percent sugar reduction per 100g within 41.7 percent of the portfolio.

3: Survey Skim, Sept 2017, cereal pack communication

4: IRI volume sales, SIG HBA/OTC exc. IMS, 52 w/e to 22nd September 2018

5: National Child Measurement Programme – England, 2016-17

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