Functional, freeze-dried trending in pet mixers/toppers

Learn about the latest trends in the pet mixers/toppers space, including their use for functional purposes and the popularity of the freeze-dried format.

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Mixers and toppers are looking to fill the functional, diversifying needs of pet owners and their animals. | (Ezzolo | Shutterstock.com)
Mixers and toppers are looking to fill the functional, diversifying needs of pet owners and their animals. | (Ezzolo | Shutterstock.com)

Mixers and toppers in the pet space are seeing a surge in popularity in the wake of shifting consumer trends in 2020. With pet owners spending more time at home with their furry (or feathered, or scaled) companions, the desire to treat the animal and diversify the food bowl became more pronounced that ever.

In a recent Packaged Facts consumer survey (the results of which were presented by Packaged Facts in the March 31, 2021, webinar, “The pet food and treats industry: Reflecting on the past, understanding the present, anticipating the future,” hosted by TC Transcontinental Packaging), the consumer market research company asked about current purchasing habits. In response, 17% of respondents said they’re buying dog food toppings/mixers/add-ins and 14% said they’re buying cat food toppings/mixers/add-ins. Further, when asked to what level they agree or disagree with the statement, “I like the idea of pet food toppings/mixers/add-ins,” 18% of respondents overall said they “strongly agree.”

The increasingly positive reception was borne out in the numbers for 2020: According to Sam Smith, client manager for consumer data analytics company Nielsen Consumer LLC (NielsenIQ) and speaker at Global Pet Expo Digital Access 2021, pet meal enhancers overall grew 5.9% to reach US$165.5 million in sales and 1.9% of the pet specialty market.

Functional toppers meet health and wellness needs for pet owners

Mixers and toppers with functional benefits are hitting the market to meet pet owner demands for the ability to take a more active role in their pet’s health and wellness.

“Consumers and retailers alike are wanting functional toppers or easier ways to supplement their pets,” said Wyatt Zuber, regional sales manager for Ageless Paws, a company focusing on treats, toppers and supplements for pets. According to Zuber, some of the top challenges from consumers are that their pets won’t take pills and won’t eat their food if there’s a supplement in it. One solution? An add-in that serves a functional purpose but also fits in as part of a meal.

Charles Bachkora, CEO of superfood-focused treats and toppers company JAC Pet Nutrition, saw plenty of opportunity for functional topper success, which led the company to release superfood dog and cat food toppers at this year’s Global Pet Expo, even though it all had to be done digitally.

Dog-with-food-bowl

JAC Pet Nutrition, which specializes in the treat and toppers space, recently released crumbles that cater to the functional angle with superfood ingredients and added benefit claims. (Courtesy JAC Pet Nutrition)

“As I studied the industry, I knew toppers were a hot item and a big growth category for all the pet specialty retailers, but what I saw out there was a lot of freeze-dried and putting that on top as a topper, or a bone broth,” said Bachkora. “I didn’t see much else, and that’s what led me to use superfoods, which I already use in my treats, in toppers. Not a lot of people are making a functional topper.”

According to Bachkora, the decision has paid off so far.

“We’ve had tremendous response from Global,” he said. “I have a stack of orders and I have some good-sized regional chains looking to bring us in. They like the toppers and the packaging and our ingredient deck, and also our claims on the bag. We think we’ve hit on something that’s right for the consumer and what the stores want to sell.”

Freeze-dried more popular than ever for diversifying pet meals

If it seems like freeze-dried is a significant part of the mixers conversation, that’s because it is. There are two primary factors at play: First, freeze-dried is a “safe” way for pet owners to enter the more specialized sectors of the pet food market. They may be open to trying non-kibble pet food options, but may not be ready to jump all the way to fresh/frozen or raw. Freeze-dried is the happy, more affordable medium. Second, while freeze-dried is obviously more expensive as a whole meal (especially with a larger pet), diversifying a pet’s meal with freeze-dried options as toppers or mix-ins make a pet owner feel like they’re giving their pet a personalized feeding experience.

“Pet lovers are beginning to understand that pets, like people, enjoy a diverse diet versus consuming the same meal day in and day out,” said Keith Arnold, director of breakout innovation for Champion Petfoods. Champion offers freeze-dried food and treat options in its Orijen and Acana pet food lines. “Increased awareness of the benefits of a rotational diet — allowing pets to get nutrients from a wide range of ingredient sources — and feeding a range of different proteins to them only further drives the allure of mixers and toppers. These products allow a simple and easy way for pet lovers to add variety to their pet’s meals, and ultimately acts as an expression of love for their pets.”

Dog-with-food-bowl

In the freeze-dried space, companies like Champion Petfoods are looking to provide products that can function as a complete meal or as a topper for mixing with other foods. (Courtesy Champion Petfoods)

The convenience factor of toppers and mixers can’t be denied, as they can serve so many different functions for a pet owner.

“Freeze-dried or raw meat toppers are an excellent way to hide and mask the smell of supplements for picky pets,” said Zuber. “Plus, they offer one or more fewer steps to supplementing pets. For example, a pet parent might add in probiotics and hip and joint powders to a pet's food with the addition of a topper/mixer to help mask the smells or entice the pet to eat. That’s two or three additional items on a pet's food. If a functional probiotic topper or joint topper can cover two or more of those steps, it becomes easier and faster at the pet's mealtime. Functional meal toppers/mixers can also lessen the cost of buying multiple items.”

Opportunities in the mixer/topper pet space

Bachkora, who said he’s a firm believer in function, sees those sorts of options continuing to grow in food spaces overall, with pet being no exception.

“On the human food side, you look at the ‘foodies’ and they’re all talking about superfoods, all the things that can help serve as a preventative,” he said. “That’s what these [functional mixers/toppers] are, to help boost pets’ immunities and heart and skin/coat and hip/joint health. I eat a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than I used to, and since I started doing that about two years ago, inflammation in my joints have gone down; it really has helped me in what I do physically. So I know that it can help dogs and cats.”

Freeze-dried isn’t yet done having its day, either, according to Arnold.

“Freeze-dried food poses the greatest opportunity for growth,” he said. “The wide range of uses it offers are attractive: It can be fed as a fully balanced and standalone meal, as an enticing meal topper, or even as an alternative treat. Plus, it’s incredibly convenient and lightweight for on-the-go flexibility. Freeze-dried food offers something for all pets, whether they prefer kibble or raw food, and we expect its popularity will continue to grow.”

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