Early life nutrition is influenced by many of the same factors that affect adult nutrition today, including convenience, personalisation, organic, plant-based, and functional ingredients.
Just as adult nutrition trends change, so to do those in early life nutrition – a category that caters to infants through to toddlers. How is the sector expected to evolve in the coming years?
Looking forward to 2030, Dutch dairy ingredients supplier FrieslandCampina Ingredients anticipates the ongoing prioritisation of transparency and trust, while the search for ingredients that offer multiple benefits – whether physical, mental or emotional – will ‘dominate’.
The goal continues to centre around bringing infant milk formula closer to breastmilk, suggested Floor van der Horst, marketing director, early life nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients, ‘not just in composition but in functionality as well’.
With consumer demographics changing – Gen Z already accounts for 40% of global consumers – we asked van der Horst what other factors could influence the infant nutrition category in coming years, from holistic nutrition to plant-based formulation, and synthetic biology.
How is Gen Z influencing consumer demand?
Gen Z – people born between 1995 and 2010 – will account of a large proportion of the adults that are caring for infants and young children in 2030.
Their life experiences and ambitions will shape their future habits as both shoppers and parents, and FrieslandCampina Ingredients has already observed several ways that this generation differs from Millennials, and even more distinctly, from Generation X.
This year, in partnership with Ipsos, the supplier conducted international research to better understand the attitudes, priorities, ‘dreams’ and worries these consumers have, explained van der Horst.
Findings revealed that Gen Zers prioritise mental health and social wellbeing, and are aware of the barriers to these, not least the pressures of an ‘always-on’ society, ‘information overload’, and social media. These are factors that, as the ‘first true digital natives’, Gen Z consumers have never known an alternative to, the marketing director explained.
“They want trust in, and reassurance about, food. But are sceptical about what brands and manufacturers claim. Gen Zers are passionate about happiness, independence, and care, especially for the environment, and value ethical responsibility.”
According to FrieslandCampina Ingredients, these are ‘exactly’ the experiences, values and issues they will bring to parenthood, and to the care of their children in 2030.
“They aspire to be caring, approachable for their future children, easy to talk to, supportive yet encouraging of independence, and role models in terms of emotional wellbeing, financial health and a grounding in the real-world (away from screens and devices).”
This means that trends that earlier generations saw as ‘emerging’ will become the everyday reality for Gen Z when they become parents themselves.
“Providing peace of mind, nurturing emotional wellbeing, offering trustworthy information about all food products, but particularly anything consumed by their children, and responding to their desire to make a lower environment impact – these are the decisions brands can make not to connect with the shoppers of 2030,” van der Horst advised.
Challenges and opportunities in plant-based
As it stands, the market is dominated by infant formula based on bovine milk, with a small percentage based on plant-based ingredients. According to Business Research Insights, the global cow milk infant formula market size was valued at $21.49bn in 2021 and is predicted to touch $26.92bn by 2028.
At the same time, in adult nutrition the plant-based segment is booming. Bloomberg Intelligence predicts the plant-based food market to hit $162bn in the next decade.
If adult nutrition trends are feeding into the early life nutrition sector, is there potential for plant-based infant formula and baby food to take off? According to the ingredients supplier, the potential for plant-based early life nutrition product is ‘unquestionable’.
“While this may account for only a small proportion of the market now, there’s no doubt that proportion will grow over time,” van der Horst told this publication. “Food preferences, concerns for animal welfare and sustainability are the key drivers of veganism and flexitarianism, both of which are more prevalent in younger generations and will shape their future purchasing decisions.”
Which plant-based ingredients are likely to be used in future dairy-free early life nutrition products? In adult nutrition, soymilk has been consumed for many centuries in countries like China, and in western markets, oat and almond are growing ‘exponentially’.
In the infant nutrition segment, protein ingredients derived from plants such as rice and soy are already available in niche categories, such as allergy care, we were told. “Following this, more mainstream early life nutrition products that contain pea protein are already being successfully introduced.”
There are some challenges to more widespread adoption of plant-based proteins in early life nutrition products, however. According to FrieslandCampina Ingredients, these include cost, availability, sensory issues, and nutritional profile.
“Technology and growing demand will help tackle these issues over the coming years, but be in no doubt, dairy is here to stay.”
This is largely due to the high nutritional value, we were told, and its ‘excellent fit’ in a flexitarian diet.
Perhaps the most exciting opportunity is for hybrid products in the early life nutrition space, suggested van der Horst. “These can address the demand for plant-based ingredients, but ensure nutritional profile is on a similar level to dairy-based products.
“Basically, offering the best of both worlds.”
Could novel tech take early life nutrition to the ‘next level’?
Plant-based is not the only upcoming trend in animal-free dairy. Precision fermentation, whereby microorganisms such as yeast are programmed to product complex organic molecules such as protein, is growing in popularity.
An increasing number of start-ups are entering the precision fermentation-derived dairy space, and in the US, some everyday products – such as ice cream and milk – containing precision fermentation-derived dairy ingredients are already on the market.
Infant formula containing casein and whey developed via precision fermentation is yet to reach the market. But human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), developed by microbial fermentation, has.
Does FrieslandCampina Ingredients believe the technology could take a larger share of the market in the future?
The supplier, which has been serving the early life nutrition sector for over 75 years, ‘firmly believes in the power of dairy’. At the same time, FrieslandCampina Ingredients does feel that novel technologies like precision fermentation could play an ‘interesting role’ in advancing early life nutrition to the ‘next level’.
“The technology is already applied in the synthetic production of HMOs, and we expect it will develop further. For instance, using it to manufacture ingredients that exist only in low concentrations in bovine milk, such as bioactive proteins, could be an exciting opportunity,” said van der Horst.
“In fact, we foresee a future where novel technologies like this co-exist with dairy-based ingredients, to get the very best from them for human health.”