I previously dished on whether pet food could achieve a clean label, concluding that this is likely a challenge that will not be able to be overcome in mass-produced, complete and balanced pet foods, but will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.
Food Business News posted an interesting article about simple ingredients recently. The article featured thoughts from the IFT 16 meeting held by the Institute of Food Technologists, July 16-19 in Chicago. How do you maintain a clean label in a processed product that needs to remain on a shelf for six to 12 months and still have its nutritional features intact? Well, you simply might not be able to.
So, what is driving this clean label trend? Like many things, it is consumer demand, driven by perception. In this case, it is backed by nutritionists who agree that eating a diet made up of whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables is better for our health. So, consumers will be compelled to read the labels of processed foods, looking for something that is as close to the original state as possible, but with the convenience of a packaged food.
Interestingly, the topic of the failure as an industry to properly educate the consumer came up repeatedly. Instead of educating the consumer about a particular ingredient that is perceived negatively, there is often a move to seek an alternative. While the alternative may be better, this is not necessarily the case.
This is not meant to be an argument against progress, but something to really think about. Science is hard. And it can be tough to explain in a way that someone without a scientific education or career can understand. I think that companies would be doing their consumers a real favor by making an effort to truly educate them regarding ingredient definitions, ingredient functions and the realities of processing.
When ingredients are vilified, does this do the industry any favors? When pet food formulas were mostly by-product meal and corn based, companies looked for alternative protein and carbohydrate sources, often at a higher cost. What better way to justify the higher cost of one product over another? Talk bad about the other product!
Is a diet made with chicken by-product meal and corn really a bad option for a dog? Absolutely not. While different foods certainly differ in quality and nutritional composition, an excellent product could have these ingredients on its label. These types of diets have lost their place in the superpremium, natural or holistic channels from a consumer perspective for certain. And many brands have stepped up to meet the consumer demand for something that they perceive as more nutritious or more natural.
On the flip side of this, now we are seeing diets containing by-products, touting the benefits of the entire animal being included in the formula. While these ingredients read as bone, kidney, liver, etc. on the label, they add up to the much-maligned ingredient labeled as by-products or by-product meal. So it seems that in this case, the industry has come full circle, and guess what? Consumers seem to be taking it all in stride.
While I still believe a clean label is unrealistic for most commercial pet foods, I do think it is bringing an opportunity to the forefront. Consumers demand transparency. Use this demand to provide the real story about ingredients in your product. While there will always be negative information about specific ingredients, providing the story about what makes your product safe, nutritious and wholesome will be embraced by your customers when presented in the right way. And we all know that there will never be a product out there that checks every single box for every single customer, but that is the beauty of this industry. There is always another option …