Human food, pet food ingredients coming full circle?

Human food and pet food have gone through cycles emphasizing avoidance of certain ingredients, yet the focus now seems more on functional ingredients.

Soybeans and meals are among the pet food ingredients that have been demonized over time.
Soybeans and meals are among the pet food ingredients that have been demonized over time.
Sharaf Maksumov l

While it may seem that functional foods, and the ingredients comprising them, have been a trend in human food and pet food for only about a decade or so, ongoing consumer studies from Innova Market Insights say that’s not the case.

“For 15 years, we have been talking about ‘clean label’ and focusing on ingredients to exclude from food,” said LuAnn Williams, global insights director for Innova, in discussing the research organization’s top 10 food trends for 2024 with “This movement created an ‘avoid’ list and made consumers think a lot about ingredients. But before this, starting in the early 1990s, functional foods and the addition of health-boosting positive ingredients was a huge trend.

“We’ve come full circle, and today, in an environment where simple messages spread quickly across social media, ingredients are being talked about non-stop — for food but also personal care products,” Williams continued. “There is also an overlap between food and personal care, so these hero ingredients are amplified even more. Vitamins A, C and E are good examples — 30 years ago, there were quite a few ACE beverages, and now we see these vitamins being highlighted for immunity but also skin health.”

Of course, we in the pet food industry know there is also significant overlap between human food and pet food, especially when it comes to ingredients and label claims. The difference in my mind is that pet food may not have quite completed the circle Williams described.

From demonized to functional?

Like human food, pet food has definitely had an avoidance phase for certain ingredients shunned by consumers, a phase that neither category has totally emerged from. Pet food particularly still has its demonized ingredients. “Over time, we have seen nearly every ingredient demonized including corn, wheat, soybean, potatoes, vitamin K, chicken and now peas,” wrote George Collings, Ph.D., president and founder of Nutrition Solutions, in his inaugural “Ingredient Issues” column in April 2023. “My first boss once told me, ‘If you work long enough, you will likely make products out of air and water.’ I’m not sure I really understood how prophetic he was.

“Our overall message to consumers has become mostly ingredient-focused with words like ‘free,’ ‘no,’ ‘recipe’ and ‘with,’” Collings added, explaining that, “in pet food marketing, it is much easier to communicate ingredient stories than nutrition and health. Ingredient misinformation has been hyper-inflated to suggest many health implications when nutrition science and health is about nutrients, bioavailability, balance and proper fortification with experienced formulation.”

No doubt this is also true in human food to some extent; after all, many consumers have been trained (via marketing and other communications) to read ingredient lists on their own and their pets’ food, looking for certain substances to buy and others to avoid. Most of us don’t have Ph.D.s in nutrition; we can understand some ingredients but don’t necessarily know about nutrients, proper formulation and the other key elements Collings listed.

Indeed, the article on, by Joshua Poole, said a third of global consumers polled by Innova reported responding positively to certain ingredients being highlighted on packaging or in marketing.

(Note: Williams will present a webinar, “Top 10 food & drink trends for 2024,” on November 16, 2023.)

Pet food example: Meat by-products

I’m somewhat surprised that Collings’ list of demonized pet food ingredients didn’t include meat by-products, which have received a bad rap for a while even as studies have shown them to be highly nutritious, bioavailable and palatable to dogs and cats.

Yet perhaps leaving them out wasn’t an oversight; over the past few years, these high-quality protein sources seem to be getting less bad press and negative reviews. Maybe that’s due to the increasing interest in and demand for sustainability, as messages by entities such as the North American Renderers Association (NARA) about rendered meat products and other parts of livestock animals being “repurposed” into pet food, animal feed, biofuels and many other products seem to make an impact.

I think NARA is doing a terrific job of capitalizing on the current interest in upcycled foods and similar products. (After all, rendering is among the original upcycling processes.) On its website, you can watch a “(wo)man on the street” type video with Anna Wilkinson, vice president of communications, asking random people if they know what rendering means. It’s interesting that among the few people who come closest to answering correctly (at least in terms of NARA’s definition of rendering), most are younger people — and younger people are typically more invested in sustainability. One young lady said she learned about the rendering concept from following someone on TikTok! (A nod to Williams’ reference to messages spreading quickly on social media.)

As much as I agree with Collings about the importance of nutrients over ingredients, the fact is that the most successful marketing meets consumers where they are — which Wilkinson and her colleagues at NARA seem to fully understand. Perhaps meat by-products are becoming an example of the full circle that Williams described for human food: a once avoided category of ingredients now gaining acceptance, or at least attention, as functional ones with other benefits, including sustainability bona fides.

Editor's note: This has been revised to correct Anna Wilkinson's title; it is vice president of communications for the North American Renderers Association. We apologize for the error.


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