Bear with me for a moment as we try a little exercise. Picture yourself sitting down at the dining room table with your family. There are wonderful smells wafting from the kitchen—maybe a juicy steak and some steamed vegetables, and maybe even a baked potato. As you sit at the table, plate in front of you, expectant, you can almost taste it.
And then your mother approaches with a jar. She opens it and fills your plate. There’s no smell. It’s a dull, beige color. And you think, “Is this what I’m going to eat?” And you start to cry. You’re nine months old, and as the rest of your family enjoys the delicious meal you’ve just smelled from the kitchen, you’re stuck with the jar of glop.
This was the scene set by Malin Bruset at the Cold Pressure Council meeting during PACK EXPO Las Vegas. As a nutritionist, a doctor of naprapathy, and a concerned mom, she was sure there was a better way. “As an adult, we would never choose eating canned food from a jar every day for every meal for six months. But that’s the option we have for our youngest,” she says. “And that needs to change and upgrade.”
Bruset, originally from Sweden, founded GroGro in Norway in 2018, determined to change the way we’re feeding our babies. A key tenet of the company is that food should never be older than the person eating it, but with standard processing and heat pasteurization, the shelf life of a typical jar of baby food is often up to two years, she notes.
With her first child, Bruset instead chose to cook most of her baby’s food herself. When her second child came along, she decided to get an education in nutrition. “The more I learned about food and kids, the more I realized how important it is and how little attention it gets, because the first two years in life, you lay the foundation of health for the rest of your life,” she says. “And food is a very big part of that.”
Fast-forward through publishing a book for parents and then teaching parents how to cook their own baby food, Bruset ultimately founded GroGro as a way to provide nutritious baby food to parents who might not always have the time to make it themselves from scratch.
Fresh baby food, with a shelf life
In a 2022 UK-based survey from Mintel, parents were asked their reasons for giving their young children homemade food rather than baby food from a jar. Getting their child used to the taste of homemade meals topped the list, followed by saving money, more variety in ingredients, more nutritious, and fewer preservatives. Enjoyable to make did not make the top five, which means there’s an opportunity for GroGro.
Though GroGro’s products are not cheaper, they check off all the other boxes. “We deliver on taste, nutrition, less preservatives, and a variation of taste and texture,” Bruset says.
But there’s a balance between providing fresh, healthy food and having it still last long enough in the package to be shipped and sold to consumers.
This is where high-pressure processing (HPP) comes in, and it’s a great fit for this application. Unlike pasteurization, which is used for most baby foods sold in stores, HPP uses pressure instead of heat to kill pathogens, so it doesn’t kill heat-sensitive nutrients in the process of making food safer. It nonetheless considerably extends the shelf life of food, enabling it to go through the logistics of shipping and stocking in grocery stores.
Bruset first learned about HPP in 2019, and it was a pivotal moment for her business. “I was so excited because this is the perfect technology for baby food,” she says. “Because you want the clean label, you want no additives, and you want a fresh product with a longer shelf life, so you can actually sell it in the store. And you want to keep all the goodness—you want to keep the texture, the nutrients, you want to keep the flavors.”
HPP can do exactly that. While heat pasteurization eliminates not only pathogens but a lot of the flavor and appearance as well, HPP is a non-thermal process that maintains the nutrients, taste, color, and texture of foods.
Research has shown how important it is to introduce babies to a variety of flavors and textures, Bruset notes. “If a child is able to get different textures, different ingredients, different flavors, then the risk of them becoming a picky eater is so much lower,” she says.
Packaging: spout or no spout?
GroGro has eight SKUs in all—two porridges, which are its bestsellers, four smoothies, and two meals. The goal is as close to homemade as possible, using only individual quick freezing (IQF) frozen ingredients, and cooking only what needs to be cooked.
One question that GroGro labored over a bit was with the packaging—whether or not to include the spout that is common on pouches of applesauce and other soft foods for young children.
“We chose not to have a spout, and that was probably the hardest decision that we made because parents love the convenience of the spout,” Bruset says. “But we’re focusing on the kids. When we lined up the advantages of going with a spout and the advantages to go without a spout, we made the decision not to have a spout because we want children to experience the food. We want them to smell the food, we want them to see the food, we want them to practice and actively eat the food.”
Not to mention: GroGro saves 50% of the plastic by going without spouts on its packages. “That’s a bonus, especially in Europe, where there’s so much focus on reducing plastic,” Bruset says.
At one point, when GroGro was considering upgrades for its packages, the company asked its customers whether they wanted spouts on the packages. They actually got pushback from customers who had already been convinced (by GroGro) that spoutless was the way to go. That kind of transparency is key, Bruset comments, to build trust with parents.
Transparency with customers
GroGro has an incredibly engaged customer base, so typically, when the development team has something it’s not sure about, they go straight to Instagram and get answers back from customers quickly. GroGro also uses that engagement to educate customers about HPP and why it’s an important part of the company’s production process.
“HPP is just an amazing technology that very few know about. So this is a way for us to spread the technology—why it’s good and how it can be used,” Bruset says. “I think that customers, they don’t have a clue of what happens in production, and that kind of transparency and education is so valuable. It gets them also to question other brands and how they do things.”
As part of this education, GroGro shows a video comparing its food and a traditional smoothie. “You can see the difference—where you have more texture, more color from our product than a traditional cooked puree,” Bruset points out. “You might think, ‘What’s the problem with canned food? I eat canned tomatoes.’ But when it comes to baby food, the producer is terrified of the risk of the food getting bad. So they sterilize the baby food four times more than canned tomatoes. And that is after you have already cooked the puree, mixing, and then sterilizing.”
In contrast, HPP enables GroGro to provide foods with more vibrancy. “By going with HPP and choosing high-quality ingredients, we get more texture, and vibrant color, and better taste,” Bruset says. “These are all the things that we, as adults, love about food, right? If you have ever opened a jar of baby food, there’s no smell, it’s kind of dead. We would never choose to eat that.”