Innovation efforts in the infant nutrition category are focusing on a single goal — to close the gap between mother’s milk and infant formula. The goal is easier said than done, but research and ingredient technologies are advancing and giving manufacturers many choices to consider.

In 2013 the global market for infant formula has been growing, with the expansion of markets in Asia, particularly China, which has a growth rate close to 20% per year; Eastern Europe; and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East and Latin America. The development of the market is linked with economic growth within the regions and the growing number of working women associated with such economic growth.

In the United States, declining birth rates and a sluggish economic recovery have rattled the baby food market, spurring a 9% sales decline from 2008 to 2010, according to Mintel International, Chicago.

The infant formula segment dominates sales within what is described as the baby food category, with infant formula holding more than 70% of market share, according to Mintel’s “Baby food and drink – U.S.” report, which was published in May 2013. The report also highlights how consolidated the infant formula market has become with three companies — Abbott Labs, Inc., Abbott Park, Ill.; Mead Johnson Nutrition, Glenview, Ill.; and Nestle S.A., Vevey, Switzerland — accounting for 94.5% of segment sales.

Infant formula generally is used from birth through 12 months, but more targeted nutritional products may be used up to 24 months. The market research firm Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., estimated retail sales of infant formula were $4.1 billion in 2012.

Trends driving infant formula development in 2013 have been convenience and reinforcement of the immune system, according to “Ingredients for the world infant formula market,” a report published by UBIC Consulting, which has its U.S. offices in Newport Beach, Calif.

Of the two trends, reinforcing the immune system has seen clear areas of development, the report said. Ingredient technologies being used may range from the direct use of protein fractions or micro-nutrients to increase immunity or indirectly, through actions that improve an infant’s digestion.

In 2012, two studies published by the University of Illinois in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition showed that adding prebiotic ingredients to infant formula helps colonize a newborn’s gut with a stable population of beneficial bacteria, and probiotics enhance immunity in formula-fed infants. Infants have a special need for stimulation of their gut microbiota because they are born with a sterile intestine.

The researchers compared the effects of feeding prebiotics and probiotics with infants fed breast milk and control formulas. They also compared the enhanced formulas’ effects in both vaginally and Caesarean-delivered babies.

The probiotic formula enhanced immunity in formula-fed infants, and babies delivered by C-section had what the researchers described as an especially improved immune response. Babies delivered naturally are exposed to the mother’s bacteria as they travel through the birth canal, and they develop a healthier population of gut bacteria as a result, according to the researchers. Babies delivered by C-section enter a sterile environment, and their gut microbiota is different.

Following nature’s path 

Infant formulas are complex matrices designed to provide an infant with nutrition as close as possible to human milk, according to UBIC. The report said advances in lipid technology are important to formula manufacture as dietary lipids are the predominant energy source for infants and play an important role in infant growth and development.

The continued characterization of lipids and lipid interactions in human milk, accompanied by developments in lipid science, may affect future design of infant formula and/or knowledge of the infant feeding experience. Recent lipid technologies include human fat analogues and other lipid matrices.

One such ingredient is Betapol, which is manufactured by IOI Loders Croklaan, Wormerveer, The Netherlands, and is designed to mimic the fat composition and structure of human milk. It is the closest natural match to breast milk fat available, according to the company.

This past September, Loders Croklaan announced the results of research conducted at the University of Cagliari, Italy, suggesting that OPO, the main component of Betapol has a positive physiological effect on infant brain function and development versus vegetable oils used in infant formula. The research showed the fatty acid distribution within the fat molecule in infant nutrition may influence the way neuronal activity is regulated and optimized in the brain, according to the company. It indicates the molecular structure of Betapol may positively influence brain function and physical development.

Another structured lipid on the market is InFat, which is marketed by Advanced Lipids, a joint venture between AAK, which has offices in Edison, N.J., and Enzymotec, Migdal Ha’emeq, Israel. The ingredient is a palmitate fat that mimics the composition and properties of human milk fat. Peer reviewed research and clinical studies have shown InFat has positive effects on beneficial gut flora, intestinal health and bone strength.

Enhancing formula production

During Food Ingredients Europe, held Nov. 19-21 in Frankfurt, Germany, Arla Foods Ingredients, Viby J, Denmark, introduced a lactose suitable for dry blends that will allow infant formula manufacturers to increase output without requiring significant capital investment. Lactose traditionally has been supplied and used in wet blends that also contain other key ingredients in infant formula, such as proteins, fats, skim milk powder, vitamins and minerals. The wet blends are heat-treated and spray dried ready for packaging.

Arla Foods Ingredients said the new dry blend lactose may be introduced to the manufacturing process after heat treatment and drying has taken place, when it may be combined with the spray-dried wet blend ingredients and packaged. This leaves more space available for the other ingredients during the wet blend stage, making it possible to increase capacity by up to 25% on existing production lines.

“Our dry blend lactose makes it possible for infant formula producers to increase output and reduce costs without compromising food safety,” said Luis Cubel, sales director for Arla Foods Ingredients’ permeate and lactose business. “In addition, it is a CO2-neutral way to achieve this, ensuring companies can maintain their sustainability credentials while boosting their bottom line.”

This past May, Arla Foods Ingredients also introduced a “staging concept” to the infant formula category. Built around Arla Foods Ingredients’ Lacprodan portfolio of protein ingredients, Staging is an approach to infant formula designed to reflect the fact that the composition of breast milk changes significantly over the months of lactation, according to the company. Formula-fed babies’ diets do not take account of these changes, and infants usually are given a “static” diet during their first six months. However, Arla Foods Ingredients has identified that the protein content of breast milk is dynamic and changes constantly during this period.

The company has developed blends of specialized milk protein fractions that help manufacturers create formulas that mimic the changing nutritional profile of milk more closely during the short time in a baby’s development.

Extracted from whey proteins, Lacprodan ingredients provide an amino acid profile to meet the needs of developing infants. This means formula manufacturers may reduce the overall quantity of protein in their products to levels closer to those found in breast milk, but still provide all the nutrients formula-fed infants need to develop healthily and grow at a similar rate to breast-fed infants.