ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Baby food used to have an image as stable — and bland — as a jar of strained peas. And its target market was limited to, well... babies.
Old-school glass jars of applesauce are still around, but these days they share shelf space in the baby food aisle with curious (and often organic) combinations like zucchini, banana and amaranth (it's a grain) packed in brightly colored pouches intended to be squished and slurped by consumers with little — and not so little — hands.
"What we try to do is engage them, stimulate all of their senses," says Paul Lindley, founder of Ella's Kitchen baby food, a pioneer in the use of pouch-style packaging. "Not just their taste sense, not just putting a spoon in their mouth or a pouch into their mouth ... but to try to stimulate all their other senses."
Welcome to the world of premium baby foods, part of a $1.5 billion industry that's no longer just about babies. Babies don't generally care much about food packaging. But toddlers, older children and convenience-driven parents do.
Pouches have allowed baby food makers to broaden the appeal of their products beyond the traditional baby food years. Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for the Hain Celestial Group, maker of organic brand Earth's Best, says pouches have helped fuel 11 percent growth at Earth's Best even as the U.S. birth rate declines.
"It's allowing us to age up. Where moms may have stopped baby food at 9 to 12 months, the pouches have really helped extend the shelf life of baby food," she says. "We see growth for a long time to come."
Parents like Lindsey Carl, of Clarksville, Tenn., make the case, saying pouches are a less messy way to feed her 22-month-old daughter and 10-month-old son simultaneously. "They don't require a spoon, which makes on-the-go easy," she says. "You don't have to worry about bringing a spoon: 'Where do I wash the spoon? Where do I put the spoon?'"
And the premium baby food world is an increasingly crowded one, with other major players including Plum Organics, Sprout, the organic baby food company founded by Food Network star Tyler Florence, and even long established baby food maker Gerber.
"We're excited about pouches and we're the No. 1 in the segment and we want to continue to grow it," said Aileen Stocks, Gerber's head of integrated marketing.
Obviously, the premium trend also is about what's in the pouches. And increasingly it's organic. While organic accounts for only about 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, organic baby food represents a more impressive 21 percent of that category, says Putman.
Gerber, with more than half the market, also is No. 1 in pouch sales, with about a 30 percent share, Stocks said. She said while organic pouches are driving growth in premium products, Gerber's product line runs from infants to preschool and they are focusing on growth and innovation in all the segments.
"Pouches obviously, it's an exciting story because you're seeing a lot of it in the aisles right now," she said. "But it's really just one part of the whole story as far as the child's nutrition."
Putman says the popularity of organics is a sign that parents are concerned about what they're feeding their babies. But there could be other reasons, too. The creative new mixes available — such as Plum's sweet potato, mango and millet, and Sprout's pasta with lentil Bolognese — might speak to Mom and Dad's inner foodie.
Premium baby foods also bridge the gap between the parents who feed out of jars and those who prefer a make-it-from-scratch approach, creating a middle ground both sides of that parenting debate are more comfortable with.
Florence sees Sprout as a way to expose more young eaters to a wider variety of more flavorful foods. His own "Aha!" moment came when a friend's toddler was spitting up old fashioned jar food. Florence steamed and pureed carrots, and the boy licked the bowl clean.
"If you're feeding a child just sort of green gruel out of a jar and they're spitting it up all over their shirt, they're saying, 'Listen, I don't like this stuff,'" said Florence.
Organic pouches can run $1.69 for 4 ounces, compared to 99 cents for some jarred food. Still, Meagan Call of Cleveland, Ohio, says she can get them on sale for about $1. Call sees pouches as a healthy alternative to sugar-heavy juice boxes for her 18-month-old son.
"They're more like smoothies," Call said. "That's what I see it as. I'm giving him smoothies and smoothies are fairly healthy as long as you don't overdo it."
Not everyone is cooing over pouches, though.
One common criticism is that in some cases a pouch will read something like "spinach and apples," giving an impression of a vegetable-rich meal even if the ingredient label lists more apples than spinach. More pointedly, some critics claim that parents tend to over-rely on pouches.
Dina Rose, a sociologist who writes the "It's Not About Nutrition" blog, said while pouches can be a beneficial "bridge" to fresh fruits and vegetables, they are no substitute.
"It lulls people into thinking that they've done their fruit-and-vegetable job. So they're done," Rose said. "And it gets them out of what they think of as the struggle to get their kids to eat fruits and vegetables."