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Veggies Go Baby Bite Size

Big seems like it would be better when it comes to food.

Fast-food restaurants make burgers so big it's hard to get your mouth around them. And don't forget about those mega-cups of soda at convenience stores.

Vegetable companies, however, have found that bite-size is better and they are growing baby food for big people.

Baby carrots, miniature corn, baby zucchini, teardrop tomatoes and other petite produce have been hits. They also are a factor in the increased popularity of vegetables — big and small, says Gary Lucier, an Agriculture Department researcher.

The average consumer ate 428 pounds of vegetables in 2000, compared with 387 pounds in 1990, the government says.

Lucier attributes the growth to the success of baby vegetables and convenient, precut greens. Consumers can now pick up salads made from romaine lettuce, baby spinach, baby arugula and radicchio, which are washed and cut at the food plant, ready to be eaten straight from the bag.

Companies are trying to change the public's perception of vegetables. Although research shows vegetables are healthy for the people who eat them, they have been portrayed as unappealing to some people, particularly children.

"Consumers are a fickle bunch," Lucier says. "They do like new things, new and exciting reasons to eat vegetables. Even though it's good for them, it's still a tough sell for people."

Produce companies say chefs are setting the trend in baby vegetables. Officials with Coosemans Worldwide, an international distributor, says consumers see gourmet meals featuring mini greens and want to make similar meals at homes.

"You mostly see it at the white tablecloth restaurants," says Bryan Thornton, a sales official for Coosemans in Atlanta. "It's something that is a special occasion type of thing that's actually moving more into the mainstream. They are cute."

Coosemans sells miniature food such as pattypan squash — a type of summer squash — baby crookneck squash, and baby zucchini with the blossoms to supermarkets. Thornton says consumers who experiment with gourmet cooking at home are probably the people who are buying the little veggies from grocers.

Ray Romeo of AJ's Fine Foods in Phoenix is one of the chefs leading the trend, using petite greens in dishes prepared at his in-store kitchen.

He views himself as an artist, adding baby zucchini, or yellow and green baby pattypans to top off a dish of meat or fish, or to complement salads. His imagination runs wild at the sight of a mini-green.

"Get some shrimp, marinate it, sauté it," he says. "Get some zucchini, fry them, throw those on top of the shrimp, and it's beautiful."

Romeo buys miniature greens from Babe Farms Inc. in Santa Maria, Calif., one of the first U.S. producers to tap into the miniature market. The farm grows hundreds of different baby foods, such as yellow and red teardrop tomatoes, mini cauliflower and baby squash. It also raises real baby carrots, harvesting them when they are just a few inches long, when carrots are sweetest.

Babe's founder, Will Souza, got the idea for specializing in little vegetables from Europe. Babe Farms first planted baby lettuces in 1986 and expanded into other varieties over the years, including baby French carrots, said Carrie Jordan, a company spokeswoman.

Baby carrots are by far the most common little veggies that consumers see piled in the produce section of their local supermarket. Companies such as Grimmway Farms began marketing them in the 1980s, but they did not catch on with consumers until a decade later.

While the Agriculture Department does not track consumption of baby vegetables, it noticed a huge leap in overall carrot consumption in the mid-1990s. Consumers on average ate nearly 18.2 pounds of carrots in 1997, nearly double the amount eaten in 1985. The number has remained steady. A typical consumer ate about 15 pounds of carrots in 2000, according to the latest figures.

Grimmway makes baby carrots by whittling and polishing regular carrots until they are about as big as a thumb. Patty Boman, a spokeswoman for Grimmway, says the popularity of baby carrots has grown in proportion to an increasing awareness among Americans that obesity has become a major health problem.

"We all know what we should be eating, and we all know that eating fruits and vegetables are good for us," she says. Carrots "are perfectly acceptable to eat as a snacking item. It's quick and it's easy and it's convenient."

Loren Hiltner, sales director for Babe Farms, has another theory on why vegetables have become more appealing to consumers.

"Improvements in packaging help tremendously," Hiltner says. "It keeps the products cold, and the vegetables are actually keeping much longer than they were a few years back."