Nestle SA, the world's biggest food and drink company, said Thursday it will buy Gerber Products Co. from pharmaceutical maker Novartis SA for $5.5 billion, giving it the largest share of the global baby food market.

The acquisition helps further Nestle's recent focus on health and nutrition, following its purchases of the U.S. weight control company Jenny Craig and Novartis Medical Nutrition.

Nestle, which owns brands such as Nescafe, Perrier and Dreyer's, is also the world's largest manufacturer of infant nutritional products — largely through its leading positions in developing countries such as Brazil and China — but had no presence in baby food in the United States.

Gerber, which Nestle has coveted for more than a decade, dominates the U.S. baby-food market, with a 79 percent share, according to Morgan Stanley.

"The acquisition of Gerber is the perfect complementary fit," said Nestle Chairman and CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. "It not only gives Nestle the leadership position in baby food, but it also constitutes a decisive step to establish Nestle Nutrition as the undisputed global leader in the nutrition field."

Adding Gerber will help the company's nutrition business generate annual sales of close to $8.2 billion. The company said it expects Gerber to generate sales of around $1.95 billion this year.

Nestle shares fell 0.7 percent to 406.05 Swiss francs in Zurich, where Novartis shares were up at 67.35 francs ($55.27).

Nestle first tried to acquire Gerber in 1994, but lost to Sandoz AG, which later merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis. Since then, Novartis has taken steps to broaden Gerber's business beyond jarred foods.

In 2000, Gerber began selling a line of powders, oils and other toiletries for children, and in 2002 it launched microwavable meals for older toddlers. It also has a life-insurance unit. But the baby-food business has never been a good fit for a parent company that mainly sells medications.

Novartis, based in Basel, has shed several noncore businesses in recent years. In December, Novartis sold its medical-nutrition division to Nestle for $2.5 billion. Novartis is focusing on three main areas: inventing new prescription medicines, vaccines, and selling low-cost generic drugs and over-the-counter medicines.

"This transaction is also the right move for Gerber, as it will become a priority business in a leading global nutrition company," Novartis Chairman and CEO Daniel Vasella said in a statement.

Analysts said although the price appeared high at first sight, it was in line with similar deals.

"Added to Nestle's existing baby food business in the U.S. and its overall North American business, this makes Nestle a very clear leader in infant nutrition in the U.S., where, unlike Western Europe, having babies remains in vogue," said Rob Mann, a Collins Stewart food analyst in London.

The purchase is expected to be completed during the second half of this year, subject to approval by regulatory authorities, Nestle said.