Functional pet food ingredients evolve with market demands

As dog and cat food manufacturers seek to differentiate themselves further in the functional pet food market, ingredient suppliers search for new ways to provide answers.

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Pet owners are paying more attention than ever to the health and wellbeing of their furry companions, and functional pet food ingredients are rising to the occasion. (annaav |
Pet owners are paying more attention than ever to the health and wellbeing of their furry companions, and functional pet food ingredients are rising to the occasion. (annaav |

Functional pet food has truly evolved past its veterinary-prescribed roots. Far more than kidney diets and kitten or puppy formulas, today’s pet foods with a focus on function tackle everything from mental acuity to calming, from small puppy to large senior.

“For going on two decades superfood and other functional ingredients have, with increasing velocity, been making their way across the aisles from human foods into pet food,” said Packaged Facts in its January 2019 report, “Pet food in the U.S., 14th edition.” And pet owners are confirming both the trend and their desire: in 2018, according to Packaged Facts pet owner survey responses, a solid 75% of pet owners surveyed said they’re willing to pay more for pet food products that are healthier for their pets. Part of the perception of “healthy,” of course, includes functional formulations.

Function as part of pet health

“The line between human and pet food is continuing to fade as more consumers are shopping for their pets based on human food values and preferences,” said Terry Howell, Suntava purple corn ingredient expert for Healthy Food Ingredients. “We are seeing more similarities between human and pet food than we are unique qualities of the two. Common trends and requests we’ve seen across both include clean/simple label, value-added, less processed, natural, organic and plant-based proteins. Like with human food, pet owners want to know where their pets’ food is coming from and are looking to healthier alternatives.”

The demand for health-based pet foods is only increasing as pets continue to live longer.

“Veterinary care and treatment have improved the average lifespan for companion animals with both dogs and cats enjoying more golden years,” said Tree Top Food Ingredients’ Director of Business Development Jeannie Swedberg. “As our pets age, they face many of the same health concerns of their pet parents. It isn’t necessarily unexpected or novel but more of a natural progression of concerns that formulators are addressing through their selection of ingredients. As greater awareness of human health concerns meshes with holistic or natural remedies found through food instead of medicine, this translates to our companion animals as well.”

Functional pet foods and treats now commonly cover ailments such as skin and coat issues, joint health, digestive problems and weight control, but have also branched out into things like extending mental acuity into old age and calming ingredients to help with anxiety. In a 2018 Packaged Facts pet owners survey, 72% of dog owners and 67% of cat owners agreed that “high-quality dog foods/cat foods are effective for preventive healthcare,” and 89% of dog and cat owners agreed that “targeted pet foods with special nutrition formulations are beneficial to pets with specific health concerns.”

Innovation for modern functional ingredient needs

With increased nuance in the functional space, ingredient suppliers are doing their best to provide innovative solutions to modern formulation needs.

Healthy Food Ingredients offers ingredients such as flax, oils and perhaps their most innovative ingredient, Suntava purple corn. Considered a superfood, the anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid) found in purple corn (and other foods with blue, purple, red and black coloring) give the food its antioxidant properties.


Innovative functional ingredients like purple corn are rising up to meet the more complex needs of today’s pet food formulations. | Photo courtesy Healthy Food Ingredients

“On its own, our purple corn packs a punch as a value-added ingredient,” said Howell. And due to increasing diversity and demand, the company offers the ingredient in various forms such as whole kernel, flour, meal, grits and flakes for a variety of applications, including both wet and dry pet food.

Tree Top offers fruit ingredients to fulfill a variety of functional formulation needs.


A class of ingredients, like fruits, can serve multiple functional purposes in a single formulation. | Photo courtesy Tree Top Food Ingredients

“Natural fruit ingredients fit into a number of consumer trends,” said Swedberg. “As the free-from movement meets the pet food aisle, American pet owners want the same sort of ingredients within pet foods and treats that they search for in their own foods. In terms of practical functionality, these fruit ingredients and others like them can add fiber, aid with texture, add color and help control moisture. In terms of physiological benefits for pets or beneficial health aspects, fruit ingredients offer formulators the opportunity to tap into fruits’ nutraceutical or phytonutrient qualities.”

SuperZoo saw plenty of new products with functional claims and ingredients:

  • Instinct showcased new cat mixers with functional benefits including skin & coat (salmon oil, chia seeds, flaxseed, cranberries) and digestive health (pumpkin, apple cider vinegar, chicory root, probiotics).
  • Wellness Pet Food’s Core formulas promote skin & coat health (canola oil) and immune support (flaxseed).
  • Nulo’s frontrunner formulas for dogs have heart health (taurine), digestive support (probiotics), immune health (antioxidants) and skin & coat (omega-3 and -6) claims.
  • Get Naked has a new premium Care series of multifunctional treats for dogs, with formulas including fitness care (beet pulp, pumpkin, broccoli), joint care (New Zealand green mussel and chicken cartilage) and antioxidant care (blueberry and pomegranate).

The future of functional pet food ingredients

Pet food manufacturers are no longer looking for a single source of functionality. Instead, they search for a multitude of benefits in both their complete formulas and their treats and toppers.

“We anticipate the current trends of clean label, simply made, traceability and plant-based proteins to continue to grow along with the meshing of human food and pet food,” said Howell.

And, according to ingredient suppliers, staying one step ahead is the way to stay on top.

“A key opportunity for pet food and treat manufacturers will be to address pets’ emotional wellbeing,” said Swedberg. “Innovative products that can aid with anxiety or stress will appeal to pet owners who are increasingly cognizant of the importance of mental health for humans and their companion animals.”


Human research: Consumer demand for functional benefitsHealthy-lifestyle-woman-food

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Kerry recently conducted a study that focused on how consumer perceptions can inform the food and beverage industry and influence future innovation in food and beverages. The company released its findings in a white paper entitled “Proactive health: consumer demand for functional benefits.” Among those findings were multiple insights into how consumers view “food as medicine” and the importance of understanding that mindset in order to stay on top of human food trends. Some highlights:

  • Consumers are more proactive today when it comes to their health.
  • Consumers see food as a tool: they utilize food today to avoid health problems in the future.
  • Most consumers employ a dual strategy, depending on the ailment, combining a balanced diet and appropriate medications.
  • There are three different food strategies consumers employ in their quest for food-as-medicine: 1) inherently beneficial products (yogurt, supplements, nutritional drinks) 2) permissible indulgences with functional benefits (snacks, chocolate) 3) easy, low-risk options (sports drinks, energy drinks)
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