Traditional baby foods, such as rice cereal, pureed bananas and strained carrots, still make up the bulk of baby-food business.
But as companies jostle for parents' attention - and dollars - they are introducing more exotic options, including baby soups and bottled water.
Parents may be impressed with the selection, but they should remember that
infants don't need a big variety of foods to be happy or healthy, says Joel Steinberg, director of medical affairs at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.
His advice: "Choose the type of baby food you're going to continue with later. . . . If you don't eat beets, don't give your baby beets."
Although it can be cheaper to make homemade baby food - or in the case of products such as apple juice, just to buy adult versions - busy parents seem to find it easier to use prepared baby foods.
"Baby food definitely provides convenience to those who want it," says Coni Francis, a registered dietitian.
Solid foods can be introduced when a baby is 4 to 6 months old. Prepared baby foods are most commonly used from then until a child is 12 to 18 months old, although regular table food usually can be offered at about 9 months.
Baby food has changed considerably since it was introduced 60 years ago.
Salt and MSG are no longer added to infant products, and sugar is added only occasionally. Single-ingredient foods have been introduced to better meet babies' need.
Gerber has about 70 percent of the baby-food market, followed by Beech-Nut and Heinz, which split most of the remainder.
But a fast-growing fourth national company is five-year-old Earth's Best, which makes organic baby food. Although organic foods make up a tiny percentage of baby-food sales, Earth's Best sales have grown an average 70 percent a year.
Spokesman Jon Corcoran said that the firm was started "to set a new standard for quality in baby food."
That means using only certified organically grown ingredients; adding no sugar, salt or fillers; producing juices without concentrates, and developing whole-grain instant cereals, he said.
Recent additions to the 41-item line include vegetarian dinners, meat products and "junior" foods (with more texture), which will be coming into stores in the next six months.
"And they taste good," said Corcoran. "That's a big deal because baby food meat products, especially, have not had much taste."
Corcoran surmises that Earth's Best may also see great opportunities in the Caribbean and in South America. The line touches that market with its Tropical Yogurt.
In the Philadelphia area, Earth's Best is sold at ShopRite, Thriftway and Foodtown supermarkets, as well as in health food stores, such as Essene in Center City and Arrowroot in Bryn Mawr, and in food co-ops, such as Ecology in West Philadelphia and Weaver's Way in Germantown. The base price is 69 cents a jar.
Earth's Best began to get some competition last year from Beech-Nut, which introduced its own organic Special Harvest line. It's sold in about a dozen areas around the country including Philadelphia, at 59 cents a jar.
"It's still in its infancy, but it's exceeding all of our expectations to date," said Beech-Nut spokesman Pat Farrell.
Neither Gerber nor Heinz plans to start organic lines, according to spokesmen.
But Gerber, which sells about 180 varieties of baby food, isn't resting on its laurels. Last fall, the company introduced its Tropical line of 16 items targeted to the Hispanic market. Those foods included a beans-and-rice dinner, a chicken-and-rice dinner, corn cereal and tropical (guava, mango and papaya) juices and fruit desserts.
Now, says Gerber spokesman Steve Poole, "we're expanding (Tropical) to national distribution based on the strong sales we've seen among Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike."
Beech-Nut added seven flavors aimed at Hispanics to its basic line in 1990.
Other new Gerber products include fruit-vegetable juices, such as pineapple-carrot and apple-sweet potato; single-serving baby soups; Simple Recipe, combinations of one meat and one vegetable, and Gerber Graduates Main Dishes, microwavable foods targeted for children 1 to 4 years old.
Beech-Nut's latest offerings include Table Time microwavable toddler foods and Baby's First Spring Water, bottled water with fluoride added to protect
New Heinz products include white grape and pear juices.
The new organic lines have raised the question of whether organic baby foods are safer for your infant than conventional foods.
Absent any conclusive scientific evidence, the answer depends on whom you ask.
Robert Kramer, chief of pediatrics at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, feels strongly about the benefits of organic food, which is grown without man-made chemicals.
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence," he says, that pesticides and insecticides "can cause all kinds of problems later in our children.
"It's anecdotal, I'll grant you, but . . . especially now that our environment is in such a tenuous situation . . . if I can go to the store and for the first year of my baby's life buy him something that is free of a contaminant, and it's not going to be a tremendous burden financially, then I'm going to do it."
Organic baby food costs roughly 50 percent more than conventional baby food. That works out to about $4 more a week for the typical baby.
Steinberg, of Children's Medical Center, doesn't see organic baby food as a health concern. He says it makes the most sense if a family plans to continue eating organic food as part of its lifestyle.
"Is it an advantage to give babies organic baby food and then start them on hamburgers and french fries?" he asks. "I would say if the family's lifestyle felt more comfortable with organic food, then this is an alternative for them."
But parents shouldn't fret over conventional baby food, he says. "There's presently no documented evidence that baby food prepared by commercial baby food companies causes any problems," he says.
Researchers are studying whether infants may be more vulnerable than adults to risks from pesticide residues because their cells are dividing rapidly, their detoxification systems are not fully developed, they eat proportionately larger amounts than adults and they have a longer time in which to develop cancers.
The National Academy of Sciences is expected to release results of a study this year on the safety of pesticide residues in diets of infants and children.
Earth's Best acknowledges that "no one fully understands the long-term health effects of pesticide residues in our food."
But, it contends, "we do know the risks are real, especially for our children. Given these uncertainties, doesn't it make sense to feed your baby organic foods grown without synthetic pesticides?"
Conventional baby-food companies say their products are just as safe.
"There's just absolutely no consumer benefit, health or nutrition, to organic," says Gerber's Poole.
He notes that Gerber is "very careful about what's applied to any produce we get," and is confident that its foods have as little pesticides as organic foods.
"I don't think commercial baby foods could be any safer or purer just
because they're organic," says Beth Adams, spokeswoman for Heinz.
Beech-Nut is careful not to promote its Special Harvest line as being safer or more nutritious than its conventional baby foods.
"It's simply a product being delivered upon demand to people who've asked for it," says spokesman Pat Farrell. "We want to offer them a Beech-Nut choice."