Why superfoods are in more pet food formulas

The parallels between human health trends and pet food trends continue to grow as the focus expands to specific ingredients touting various health benefits for pets.

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George Tsartsianidis, Dreamstime.com
George Tsartsianidis, Dreamstime.com

The connection between human food trends and pet food trends has been known to the pet food industry for years now. As pet food purchasers strive to provide their pets with the best food options available, the more specific health trends are gaining prominence and finding their way into specialty pet food formulations by way of so-called superfood ingredients.

“The connection between human and pet has certainly grown exponentially over the last couple of years, with the general public wanting to treat and feed their animals the most highly nutritious foods that they possibly can,” said Lawrence Blitz, president of Green Source Organics. “I know there are a few brands out there that make the claim of human-quality food for pets, and others just try to find the highest-quality ingredients or ingredients that may have added health benefits. I think that really speaks to the bleed over from human to pet and what’s causing it. I think also that the perception that what’s good for us is also good for our pets, whether it be scientifically substantiated or not, plays a role.”

Trending: superfoods

Superfood ingredients, which usually come with at least one specific health benefit claim, can be found across the spectrum of foodstuffs — everything from pulses to fruits and vegetables to aquatic ingredients have options for pet food manufacturers to pull from.

“The inclusion of pulses in pet food mirrors the strong growth in human foods that incorporate peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils,” said Margaret Hughes, vice president of sales and marketing for Best Cooking Pulses Inc. “Designated as one of the top 20 antioxidant foods by the [US Food and Drug Administration], pulses are a nutrient-dense powerhouse, loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, yet low in fat. To top it off, pulses have a significantly lower glycemic index than other seeds and grains, so they provide an additional advantage in terms of weight management.”

Weight management is a significant pull for specialty pet food buyers, but there are other health and nutrition benefits consumers look for, as well, which means diversifying superfood options to suit a number of potential market needs. “With pet food mirroring human food so closely, we are seeing a need regarding all of the current dietary concerns,” said Casey Koehnlein, general manager for Marshal Ingredients. “Health benefits for sure. Yes, natural/organic, gluten free, particular formulations for stages of life, common ailments and activity levels. The wonderful thing is that superfoods address all of these concerns, and there is a superfood ingredient for each individual’s needs. Blueberry, apple, cranberry, tart cherry — all have specific attributes that perfectly address one or more of a pet owner’s concerns for their animal.”

Even aquatic ingredients are getting in on the trend. “In addition to the continued (and increasing) use of high-quality sweet potatoes and other grain-free options like chickpeas and lentils, we are seeing more and more diets containing aquatic mineral sources such as kelp, as well as aquatic proteins and oils with high levels of omega-3s,” said Lane Lott, business development and sales manager at Lortscher Agri Service Inc. 

It typically comes down to what ingredients are sought after for various health issues that may be targeted by veterinarians or pet treat and food manufacturers, according to Blitz. “We’ve seen a huge increase in the demand for green-lipped mussel powder,” he said. “That’s seen as a very high-protein palatant with anti-inflammatory properties, good for bone and joint issues. It’s kind of seen as a high-profile amino acid compound, and works well to increase appetite in animals who might not be eating due to illness, or who are picky eaters. A lot of raw food manufacturers enjoy it because it’s freeze-dried.”

Solid Gold Pet, which has always grown on a platform of superfood ingredients in its pet food formulations, has watched the growth and expansion of consumer needs as a matter of course. “There are certainly health benefits associated with key superfoods and consumers are realizing the power of this — not just with the food that they eat, but with the food that they give to their pets, as well,” said Bob Rubin, CEO and president of Solid Gold. “The growing traction of superfoods in our category is reflective of the overall humanization of pets. We think of pets as family and want to give them the best possible life, which starts with exceptional nutrition as the foundation. It makes sense that pet parents would want to feed their pets healthy, recognizable ingredients that deliver known health benefits.”

The future of superfoods in pet food formulations

With so many potential uses for superfood ingredients, the pet food industry is settling in for the long haul. “For now, the trend looks to be very stable and sustainable for several years to come,” said Lott. “As pet ownership expands with millennials, they are more ‘health’ conscious, it seems, as it pertains to their ‘children’ and tend to feel that if it is good for them then it must be good for their pets. The growth in this segment seems to also be getting a strong push due to companies looking more and more for ‘novel’ ingredients and other ingredients to bring to the deck as our sources of commonplace ingredients from the past become more and more limited. Without a doubt, the trend is spilling over into other pet food segments as ingredients like freeze-dried meats, fruits and vegetables become more readily available.”

Naturally, the superfoods trend will branch out and grow into whatever the market demands. “There will be winners and losers like everything,” said Koehnlein. “Some superfoods will make it and some won't.”

They may not even keep the same label as their place in pet food formulation changes. “Because of the phenomenal nutritional benefits of these ingredients, I definitely believe the use of superfoods will continue to grow within pet food to include more unique and varying ingredients,” said Rubin. “What I don’t know is that they will always be called superfoods. This term is really popular within human food right now.” And as has been amply demonstrated, wherever human food trends go, pet food trends are sure to follow.


The list of superfoods being used in pet foods continues to grow as manufacturers find more ways to incorporate a wide variety of ingredients in their formulations to meet diversifying market needs.


“On the botanical side, I’ve seen a large increase in demand for all the greens, but particularly the grasses — anything from alfalfa, barley, wheat and oat grasses can be used both as nutrients and colorants,” said Lawrence Blitz, president of Green Source Organics. “Spirulina and chlorella are high in vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients.”

Fruits and vegetables

“Broccoli, cabbage and kale are popular in varied quantities,” said Blitz. “That’s kind of holistically the green group. The fruit side would be anything from blueberries, cranberries, blackberries or red raspberries, to bilberry, aronia or elderberry. They’ve been shown to work really well on the antioxidant side. They would potentially work in helping as a preservative in the food itself, and helping the animal as an antioxidant, a free-radical scavenger for reducing oxidation in the body.”

Functional ingredients

“I’ve also seen a little bit of some of the extracts, which would be botanical extracts, polyphenols or green teas,” said Blitz. “There are just so many ingredients that are used and have interest to manufacturers. Turmeric on the joint and bone health side is very popular as an anti-inflammatory, but also a natural colorant.

“I’m also seeing what may be construed as the natural side of things,” he said. “Some of our natural flavorings or oils, such as garlic, also have some health and antioxidant properties. Some of them are multifaceted in terms of functionality — they may work both as a palatant or an aroma, but also have potentially the benefits of adding a health benefit or a superfood. In certain concentrations, some of these botanical extracts become more powerful in their health benefits.”



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