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Gerber is offering new food it says babies will drool over: a starch- and sugar-free menu intended to help the corporate giant of strained peas and mashed bananas break into the growing "healthy" market.

With the change, 121 of Gerber's 190 products won't contain starch or sugar, giving it the widest variety of baby food without the additives. Some foods for older children will retain starch and sugar; Gerber foods for the youngest babies have never contained the additives.Gerber Products Co., one of the nation's oldest baby-food processors, developed recipes that not only cut out the unwanted ingredients but "met our high taste and nutrition standards," said Tracy Baker, director of product development. The change will take place over the next six months.

Research shows a growing number of parents want foods for their babies that don't contain the additives, Gerber spokesman Van Hindes said.

He denied the move is related to complaints by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, that the company deceived the public about the nutritional value of some of its baby foods, which were diluted with water, sugar and chemically modified starch.

Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director, said it was possible Gerber made the change partly to resolve those complaints. Nonetheless, he said, the change is "very good news for babies, and it would be even better if Gerber improved the nutritional content of all of its baby foods."

Gerber, which formally announced the change today, was founded in 1901 and introduced baby food in 1928, building business with the familiar slogan: "Babies are Our Business . . . Our Only Business."

After dominating the baby-food section at grocery stores for years, Gerber has lost ground to competitors with "healthy" baby-food lines, including Beech-Nut, a unit of Ralcorp Holdings Inc.; H. J. Heinz Co.; and Earth's Best, a line of organically grown baby foods Heinz bought this year.

Despite demand for all kinds of so-called healthy foods, baby-food makers have stumbled entering the market.

Beech-Nut dropped its Special Harvest line of organic baby foods in 1993, two years after launching it. Growing Healthy Inc., which produces frozen health food for babies, has never challenged Gerber's dominance.