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Pet Food Ingredients
on November 24, 2009

Reaching for the extreme edge

Exotic ingredients are being added to petfoods to grab attention and capitalize on high-growth trends

["Given petfood and its ingredients are a global industry, one's exotic is another's everyday.", "All these exotic ingredients are very expensive, so their use is sparing."]

Strange, new, exotic ingredients are showing up in petfoods. Sure, new ingredients have been migrating into petfood for years. It wasn't too long ago that ingredients like chicken meal fueled the "no by-product" movement, lamb was a must-have for dermatitis, fish oil and flax were sleek ways to deliver omega-3 fatty acids and beet pulp was the key to consistently firm stools. That was the cutting edge. Now, those "new" ingredients are considered common and passé.

Taking their place are the more "novel" ingredients. These are common ingredients in our own diets but novel for our pets. Products containing these ingredients are often marketed as "holistic" foods and feature meats like venison, rabbit and duck, carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, millet and tomato pomace, fruits like apples, apricots and pomegranates, vegetables like spinach, broccoli, collard greens and alfalfa sprouts, and other goodies such as cod-liver oil, marigold extract, kelp and shark cartilage.

But apparently novel still isn't enough-some of the ingredients landing in petfoods can't be classified as anything but exotic.

The more exotic, the better

What are these exotic ingredients? The definition of exotic would suggest they are "foreign, strange or different in a way that is striking or fascinating, enticing" (Webster). That is pretty straightforward as definitions go; however, given petfood and its ingredients are a global industry, one's exotic is another's everyday.

For example, kangaroo may be exotic in North America but common in Australia. So truly exotic ingredients for petfoods extend well beyond novel and customary, are rare even to human diets and in most cases are uncommon in a particular geography or market.

For marketing purposes, the more concrete factor is whether the ingredient is part of a new fad or has a shock-value or head-turning quality. If the general consumer would consider this new ingredient a stunt, absurd or just plain strange, it probably qualifies as exotic.

High volume differentiation

Why are exotic ingredients being added to petfood? Mostly to attract attention. Considering most regulatory agencies have disallowed bold health claims on petfood products and celebrity endorsements have been lackluster at best, the one route that still seems to resonates with consumers are ingredient listings that differentiate one product from the next. The need to be different means the old tried-and-true ingredients no longer qualify.

Plus, the petfood aisle has become quite crowded-new products, new ideas, new nutritional platforms, new fears, new packaging and new technologies. To wade through all this "new" noise takes a pretty bold and appealing message. Since there is a certain amount of mystery and intrigue surrounding exotic ingredients, they tend to attract attention. They also appeal to the curiosity, if not vanity, and the underlying promise of natural contribution to health and longevity makes them almost irresistible.

Inclusion of exotic ingredients in a petfood is fully intended to provoke and fascinate. And for good reason-the market for ingredient-focused products is growing, albeit from a small base, at a double-digit rate. During the period from 2003-2007, the petfood market was estimated to be growing at an annual rate of approximately 5.3%. However, the natural and organic segments, which account for only a small fraction of the whole (about 6% of the market), were growing at a rate of 24.6% and 48.1%, respectively (Packaged Facts, 2009).

If we assume the segment selecting exotic ingredients matches up with the natural and organic segments, and it garners about 1-2% of the market, we're talking about a segment of US$170 to US$340 million with a growth rate exceeding 25%. A decent place to start!

Nutrition in background

Beyond grabbing attention, do any of these exotic ingredients serve a purpose? In general, the underlying story behind each is health or "extra-nutritional" properties-not support of baseline nutrient requirements per se. Exotic meat, poultry and fish ingredients (see sidebar) are typically included as part of an exclusionary protein source. Their use goes well beyond supplying nutrients and rests on the premise that dogs and cats have not been exposed to these ingredients previously.

Nutrition is also in the distant background with various exotic seeds such as amaranth and quinoa, which are offered as gluten-free alternatives to classic grains, or chia, which provides an uncommon option to flaxseed for omega-3s. The fruits (see sidebar) each contain various potent antioxidant compounds such as anthocyanins, flavanols and carotenoids. The specialty oils are included for their unique contribution of fatty acids-for example, coconut oil contains appreciable quantities of medium chain fatty acids. Some specialty oils bring antioxidant properties, such as sesame oil, which contains the potent antioxidant phenolics sesamol and sesamin.

Extracts from various mushrooms have been shown in early testing to contain antitumerogenic properties in lab animals. Most of the herbs that are included (see sidebar) have some medicinal back-story with antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory or anticarcinogenic attributes. These latter two categories, the mushrooms and herbs, are truly focused on medicinal properties rather than nourishment and likely cross the line between food and drug.

Relative to conventional ingredients, all these exotic ingredients are very expensive, so their use is sparing. For exclusionary diets, the meats, seeds and roots may be incorporated at levels exceeding 20%. However, if having the name on the label is all that is desired, the levels may be substantially lower. Fiber sources such as bamboo and specialty oils like krill oil might be included at levels up to 3%. The remainder, such as the fruits, microbials and herbs, are likely to be included in amounts of much less than 3%-more than likely less than 1/10 of a percent-an amount comparable to that for trace minerals and vitamins.

Bridging the gaps

The limited inclusion levels for many of these exotic ingredients may actually be advantageous, given there is little to no validation in the literature relative to animal health. No studies were found in the publicly available literature on any of these ingredients relating to toxicity, long-term effects, overall effects on metabolism or efficacy in companion animals. Neither palatability nor acceptability tests were available, nor were data on the effects of these ingredients on stool quality or overall post-ingestive tolerance.

Further, no validation tests were found regarding the effect processing had on the active compounds or whether these ingredients had some special properties during processing that would affect the viability of the petfood (e.g., heat penetration, gelatinization).

While the incorporation of many of these exotic ingredients shows real creativity and fortitude, attributes that keep the petfood industry robust and growing, the lack of supporting evidence could be problematic. Each of the exotic ingredients in the sidebar was found on petfood labels for products currently available for sale through retail or online. While some of the ingredients are recognized by the European E number system or may be available at your local grocery, few if any are currently recognized by the official bodies that regulate petfood in various countries.

Limiting opportunity?

The petfood industry has continued to grow because of product innovation, maintaining focus on the best interests of the pet and holding pet owner confidence by being open and responsible. Well-intentioned companies promoting petfoods with exotic ingredients that lack pet-specific validation and a legal basis put pets and the industry at risk. This lack of initiative and investment also limits the opportunities to promote truly beneficial ingredients and ultimately limits the opportunity for a few that might really do some good.

Extreme ingredients of the past that were fully evaluated for efficacy and safety have become mainstays of our petfood market today. The hope is that the same level of responsibility will be applied to the current exotic ingredients in the coming years.

Ingredients at the edge

Examples of exotic ingredients include:

  • Meat, poultry and fish : beaver, brushtail (possum), unagi (eel), wild boar, sea cucumber;
  • Seeds and fruits : chia, quinoa, amaranth, acai berries, saskatoon berries, black currants, goji berries, yumberry;
  • Vegetables and roots : bamboo, bok choy, fenugreek sprouts, jicama;
  • Oils : tea tree oil, krill oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, almond oil, cetyl-myristoleate;
  • Bacteria, fungi and plankton : coriolus mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, maitake mushrooms, kefir, plankton; and
  • Herbs, spices and nutraceuticals : hawthorne berries, astragalus, angelica root, milk thistle, olive leaf, pau d'arco, birch bark extract, propolis, slippery elm bark, wild yam root, boswellia serrata, devil's claw, nettles.
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