Clean label: A complex pet food trend for pet owners

Just because there is not an official definition of “clean label,” it doesn’t mean pet food customers don’t have their own ideas of what this means when it comes to shopping for clean label pet food.

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The multiple perceptions surrounding the idea of “clean label” in pet food makes this current trend a hot topic in the pet food industry. (VadosLoginov | shutterstock.com)
The multiple perceptions surrounding the idea of “clean label” in pet food makes this current trend a hot topic in the pet food industry. (VadosLoginov | shutterstock.com)

The idea of “clean label” in relation to food has been gaining mainstream traction for several years now and has been somewhat complicated in definition from the start. In 2015, Food Business News named clean label its trend of the year in the human food space, while noting that “perceptions of so-called ‘natural’ products and ingredients vary among consumers, creating challenges for product developers.” Natural and organic ingredients or foods have long been perceived as healthier, and therefore “cleaner,” by human and pet food customers alike.

What does clean label mean in pet food?

“Natural,” “organic” and “healthy” are only a few of the buzzwords pet food buyers seem to be looking for when thinking of clean labels. In the January 2019 issue of Petfood Industry magazine, clean label was named a top trend to watch, according to the pet food industry, for the second year in a row. From limited ingredient products to raw/fresh/frozen formulations, from air-dried snacks to minimal processing, it seems that a multitude of pet food items could fall under the clean label banner — or not, depending on the specific customer.

“Clean label is often associated with terms like genuine, authentic, transparent, identity preserved, organic, natural, unprocessed, minimally processed and many others,” said Greg Aldrich, Ph.D., president of Pet Food & Ingredient Technology Inc. and a regular contributor to Petfood Industry magazine. “Journalists and marketers in the human foods and nutrition trade promote it as simple, short ingredient statements with ingredient names that are easy to pronounce.”

According to Aldrich, while the idea of clean label likely started with the first so-called premium pet food products which touted a lack of artificial colors or flavors, the idea quickly grew to include a shift to natural preservatives, foods claiming to contain no fillers and foods with “no corn, wheat or soy” labels. Today, grain-free diets, limited-ingredient diets, ingredient exclusion diets and human-grade ingredients have joined the trend.

The numbers behind the clean label trend

Pet food purchasers might not all agree on what “clean label” means, exactly, but their purchasing patterns do show favoritism toward what they perceive as clean (i.e., healthy), particularly in the premium pet food space. According to a Packaged Facts survey of pet owners, 75 percent of pet product buyers surveyed in the first quarter of 2018 said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “I am willing to pay more for pet food products that are healthier for my pets.” Comparatively, only 6 percent somewhat or strongly disagreed with the same statement.

According to Statista data on clean label pet food sales growth in the U.S. in 2018, sales of GMO-free pet food rose by 28.8 percent compared to 2017 numbers. Product claims citing free from corn, hormones, fillers, artificial preservatives and artificial colors also saw upticks in 2018 sales compared to 2017, according to data.

Jumping into the human food space (where the majority of eventual pet food trends begin), in 2017 global sales of clean label packaged foods reached US$193.2 billion, according to Euromonitor International data. Further, more than half of global consumers said they agree that eliminating undesirable ingredients is more important than adding beneficial ones.

In the U.S. in 2017, one-third of all grocery products were clean label and half of all grocery shopping trips included a clean label food or drink item, according to a Nielsen clean label survey. In 2018, 70 percent of U.S. adults bought at least one natural food product per month, 60 percent bought an organic product and 55 percent purchased at least one product a month without artificial additives, according to a Packaged Facts clean label consumer report.

Given the attention paid by consumers in the human food space to various clean label ideas, it’s no surprise that the trend continues to gain ground in pet food.

Pet food industry focus on clean label

Since the definition of “clean label” continues to change according to consumer wants and needs, it’s important to stay on top of multiple aspects of the trend. On April 29, 2019, the Petfood Forum Innovation Workshop will focus on the topic of clean label technology. The annual interactive workshop will explore the trends for transparency and desire for improved communication through labels with the technical, legal and logistics of manufacturing modern pet foods to satisfy both pets and owners. Hands-on demonstrations will look at the clean label trend from consumer messaging, regulations and claims, supply chain, manufacturing, preservation, and validation, control and quality angles.

On May 2, 2019, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) will be holding a Pet Food Labeling Workshop in association with Petfood Forum. A broader look at pet food labeling, the day-long workshop will cover pet food product label construction, what states look for when doing label review, how to review labels in-house for compliance, how to avoid common label problems and how to make appropriate marketing claims.

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