Plant-based ingredients have gained popularity in both human food and pet food for several years, and may be attracting even more interest and product development now in the wake of supply chain issues affecting traditional animal proteins.
For example, a 2021 survey by Beneo showed that 72% of U.S. pet owners were open to having plant-based protein sources in their pets’ diets. Accordingly, plant-based claims on new pet food product launches from 2016-2020 rose at a 40% compound annual growth rate, according to Innova Market Insights. And more pet food companies are looking to enter this arena: 62% of more than 300 pet food producers surveyed in 2022 by CRB, an industry supplier, said they are considering changing protein sources to plants in the next five years.
Yet with this rising popularity, pet food processing experts caution that developing products with plant-based ingredients calls for new and different production considerations and protocols to ensure you can create marketable products.
3 essential considerations in developing plant-based pet foods
In the CRB survey, responding pet food producers ranked three factors as “extremely important” to consider when developing pet foods with plant-based proteins: the final product’s nutritional profile (ranked by 52%), its label (48%) and its appearance (37%).
1. Nutritional profile. Plant-based proteins alone won’t give pets the balanced diet they need,” wrote Tony Moses, Ph.D., director of product innovation for CRB, in explaining the importance of the nutritional profile. “Filling that gap may mean expanding your supply chain, your manufacturing process and your storage capacity.”
In other words, it’s not necessarily a simple process to replace other proteins with plant-based ones in existing formulations. And besides those changes, you need to keep potential processing implications in mind. “Before committing to a final formulation, look upstream at how that formulation will impact your operation,” Moses wrote, emphasizing that different ingredients handle differently during production. “Simulation technology can help you test various approaches, giving you visibility into your process while you still have the opportunity to make cost-effective changes. This will help you to develop a tailored approach that offers both a balanced formula for pets and a balanced return on your investment. “
2. Appearance. Your R&D team should also spend time on questions regarding the desired appearance of the product. “Will your plant-based protein appear as distinct particles, like chunks in a stew?” Moses wrote. “Or will you present a blended meal, like a loaf-style canned product? The answer will shape your manufacturing and sourcing strategy, which in turn will have a big impact on what it costs to make your product—and what it costs consumers to buy it.”
3. Labeling. The label brings together the product’s nutritional profile and appearance, and potential label claims require serious consideration. “Behind every claim lies a smart cleaning, storage and utilities strategy,” Moses explained. “Planning this strategy early could spare you from expensive future retrofits.
“It’s not enough to develop a formulation that’s free of a certain element (like meat, gluten or grain),” he continued. “To substantiate those claims, you need a good understanding of modern hygienic design for pet food processing. Manufacturers with raw meat in their product portfolio know this strategy well: It’s all about removing the risk of cross-contamination from your process, ensuring that the claims you make on your label are valid from the moment you receive your raw ingredients to the moment a final product leaves your facility.”
Pet food processing equipment suppliers can help
If you’re considering whether to incorporate any types of new ingredients into your pet food portfolio—whether to move into the plant-based category or to deal with current supply chain challenges—suppliers of your processing equipment can often offer help and support.
“We basically always recommend for a customer to reach out to who supplied the system or who helped install the system to see if they will be willing to offer any kind of testing to validate if the piece of equipment they have will work with the new ingredient and/or the changes in the recipe,” said Drew Turner, regional sales manager for Coperion’s food industry markets, during an Ask the Pet Food Pro chat. “So that we can have a conversation with them, the experts, and make sure it’s done right.”
If your company has the capability, running your own tests is a good idea, too, including to ensure the formulation meets nutrition-related requirements and standards. “If you have a one-off piece that you can actually run the material with and start to validate those ingredients,” that’s an important step, Turner said, but beware that there a lot of challenges with changing ingredients. Working with suppliers is usually the easiest.
“There are quite a few of us out here that will do free testing, if you just contact a local rep or contact the company through a webpage,” Turner suggested. “And you say, ‘Hey, I got this ingredient, I'm looking to potentially change, here’s where I’m at now, here’s where I’m looking to go, what would you recommend,’ and we would do a test for that, and give you the actual results, and what kind of accuracy you can expect.”