“Health and wellness” is a catch-all term, probably somewhat overused, to describe pet food label claims or product benefits aimed at helping pet owners improve, or at least maintain, their furry family members’ health. And because most of those consumers do consider themselves pet parents, they respond to such claims and seek these types of pet foods and treats. In fact, Packaged Facts data from earlier this year showed that 63% of US dog owners and 59% of cat owners agreed that high-quality dog foods or cat foods are effective for preventive health care.

It’s no accident that the health angle is strong in human food, too, as pet food trends closely follow—or, more often now, walk side by side with—those in human food. “Health is the halo over everything,” remarked Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova Market Insights, in a webinar presenting the top 10 food trends for 2016, eight of which have a connection to health.

At least that many also have other connections to pet food. Here’s the list:

  1. Organic growth for clear label—new product launches with organic or GMO-free positioning are showing the strongest growth in human food, Williams said, with organic now reaching over 9% of all global food and beverage launches. In pet food, organic sales tend to be combined with those for natural products; for example, Packaged Facts’ report “Pet Food in the US, 11th Edition” (September 2014) indicated that organic and natural pet food sales are projected to increase 14.6% annually through 2019. Currently, organic pet food accounts for only 4% of the overall US market, though the share rises to 9.8% of pet owners who buy organic pet food online and 8.8% of those who shop in independent pet stores. For Petco and PetSmart, organic pet foods are bought at a 7.1% and 5.6% rate, respectively, with organic purchases at veterinary clinics not far behind at 5.3%.
  2. “Free from” for all—the free from trend has been growing for the past few years and has now hit mainstream, Williams said, commenting that gluten-free claims on new cereal products have increased from one in 15 in 2011 to one in five this year. This correlates to pet owners sending grain-free sales soaring to US$2.6 billion from September 2014 to October 2015, according to GfK, at a robust 25% annual growth rate. GMO-free claims are also becoming more popular in pet food, as in human food.
  3. “Flexitarian” affect—mainstream consumers are cutting back more on meat for health, sustainability and animal welfare reasons, becoming “part-time vegetarians,” Innova reported. In Western Europe, for example, the number of new meat substitute products more than doubled from 2011 to 2015. Interestingly, the opposite seems to happening in pet food, as more pet owners look for diets focusing on the carnivorous nature of dogs and cats, driving the number of products with high-meat and fresh-meat claims ever higher.
  4. Processing the natural way—brands now communicate more about their production processes, due to consumer interest in natural plus authenticity and transparency. This is definitely true for pet food buyers, too, especially those seeking products in non-traditional formats such as raw, freeze-dried, frozen and baked. Williams used the example of high pressure processing (HPP), which is familiar to raw pet food manufacturers and buyers; in human foods, it’s now being used in soft drinks and juices.
  5. Green light for vegetables—veggies are going mainstream, with human food producers showing a “huge amount of innovation,” Williams said. In fact, 25% of juice drinks now contain veggies, and they’re even showing up in yogurt. (And pet food, as we know.)
  6. Creating a “real” link—communicating to consumers about where a product comes from and the origin of its ingredients; in short, highlighting that it’s real, whole food. Williams said the number of new food products with claims such as “made in” or “ingredients from” have tripled from 2011 to 2015. We are seeing a similar movement in pet food as pet owners demand more transparency and information about the ingredients in their pets’ diets, and US pet owners seek products proclaiming “made in the USA.”
  7. Small players, big ideas—small companies are leading the human food industry with new ideas and thought leadership, Williams commented. Similarly, true innovation in pet food often seems to come first and foremost from smaller companies.
  8. Beyond the athlete—the strong focus on protein is continuing but not just for athletes; now it’s all about a healthy lifestyle for everyone. Protein has also become an increasingly important label claim for pet foods and driver of pet owner interest. What’s still somewhat new are novel sources of protein, in both human and pet foods. For example, 10% of all new cereal products launches (including bars) now have a protein claim, Williams said. In pet food, we’re seeing dog treats with protein sources such as insects (cricket meal) and exotic proteins such as alligator, kangaroo and green-lipped mussels showing up in both complete diets and treats.
  9. The indulgence alibi—health-conscious consumers still look for permissible indulgence, such as smaller portion sizes of decadent treats or candy with healthy(ier) ingredients such as chia seeds or yogurt. Pet treats have seen an explosion of development in terms of ingredients with functional or other nutritional benefits, allowing pet owners to indulge their pets guilt free (or with a little less guilt).
  10. Tastes for new experiences—flavors and textures are becoming bolder, more complex, authentic, specific. The correlation to pet food is with new formats blending freeze-dried bits with kibble, at least partially for the texture variation, and, again, with treats, where pet owners can now choose from an astounding variety of shapes, textures and flavors.

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dphillips@wattnet.net