5 ingredient trends for pet food’s next evolution

Five keys to pet food’s next evolution appeared when Nielsen market researchers looked at both pet food packaging claims and the ingredients listed on the labels.

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photo by aetb, Bigstock.com
photo by aetb, Bigstock.com

Five keys to pet food’s next evolution appeared when Nielsen market researchers looked at both pet food marketing claims on packages and the ingredients listed on the labels, said James Restivo, director of client development at market research group, Nielsen. He explored these five pet food ingredient trends during the opening session of Petfood Innovation Workshop.

Nielsen teamed up with Label Insight, a product data agency, to look at what is in pet foods and what’s not, he said. The trends Restivo discussed mostly started in the human food realm, but are migrating into what consumers demand in their pets’ food too.

1. Cleaner products

“Pet food is starting to move faster than human food in terms of quality and clean label,” he said. “To start with, pet parents care about what is in the food and very importantly, they care what is not in the food. So we see not only growth for all natural ingredients, we’re seeing significant growth for items that are actually ‘free from.’”

“Free-from” means marketing pet food as not containing certain categories in their ingredients panel. Restivo gave these examples of ingredients pet owners don’t want to see:

  • GMO,
  • corn,
  • hormones,
  • fillers,
  • artificial preservatives and
  • artificial colors.

2. Functional ingredients

“Now once you start taking things out of the foods themselves, now you still need to talk about the chemicals and biological needs of the animals. The animals still have joint problems, kidney problems, urinary tract problems.”

That’s where functional ingredients come into play.

“So what we’re seeing, just like on a human side, superfoods are coming into the pet foods to try to solve some of those challenges,” he said. “We see things like sweet potatoes as corn, beans and soy have been pulled out. Sweet potatoes are the new carb. Cranberries, particularly with cats, we know cats have urinary tract challenges, cranberry solve those urinary tract challenges. Blueberries, blueberries have an antioxidant on the human side starting to see it rise in terms of the pet food based as well.”

However, while people generally demand that functional ingredients come from minimally processed biological sources, there are exceptions. Particularly in pet foods with joint health claims, pet owners accept synthetic or processed ingredients, such as glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate. Dollar growth of pet foods containing glucosamine increased by six percent between March 2017 and 2018, while pet foods with joint health claims actually decreased by six percent.

“Consumers go to their physicians with joint health problems and their physicians tell them take a glucosamine tablet and it is the same thing that the vet is offering to them,” he said.

3. Protein matters

Pet foods with meat as the first ingredient enjoyed three percent dollar growth from March 2017 and 2018, according to Nielsen analysts.

“Protein is king right now,” Restivo said. “Pet is a logical spot to really talk about protein. Sixty-four percent of pet foods today have more than one protein source. And what we are seeing in the most recent data, in the most recent trends is not the protein itself but the source of that protein. Is it grass fed? Is it hormone free? Is it antibiotic free?”

While conventional protein-sources, such as chicken, beef and fish, still dominate the ingredient lists of these protein-packed pet foods, certain novel proteins, such as quail and elk, are growing as well.

4. Plant-based diet

Although relatively few people self-identify as vegan or vegetarian, plant-based diet trends influence omnivores as well, he said.

“Think of things like quinoa, things like kale, these are things that started some of those vegan and vegetarian diets and have really moved mainstream on the human side,” he said. “Still very, very small in the pet space but we are starting see the rise of plant-based proteins. Just like quinoa on the human side, we are starting to see that rise up on the pet side. It isn’t very big yet, but there’s growth in it.”

5. Raw and freeze-dried

Another small but growing diet trend is raw and freeze-dried pet food.

“It's still a relative niche, less than 1 percent of the category but it is growing,” said Restivo. “If you're going to embark in the raw and freeze-dried space, obviously there is the cost challenge, how far are consumer willing to go and willing to pay? I believe that once this moves mainstream, once it moves into kind of the mass market channels, I think some of those prices are going to come down. As we get our supply chain and our manufacturing and our companies kind of ready for it.”

These five trends may drive the vanguard of the pet food industry into its next evolution, but Restivo also noted that there are a wide range of pet owner demands. Not every consumer wants the latest trend in their dog’s bowl, and some have yet to adopt even a mainstream trend like natural pet foods.

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