Pet food trends: Is clean label the new natural?

As natural pet foods and human foods have become so common, a new trend – clean label – is making its mark. But do consumers understand what it means?

Photo by Andrea Gantz
Photo by Andrea Gantz

Natural pet food and human food products have been around for at least a decade and have captured so much of consumers’ attention and purchasing power that “natural” as a label claim is almost a given. “Natural has become the basis, the foundation of pet food in the pet specialty space,” said Maria Lange, business group director of GfK, in a webinar in fall of 2016. She cited natural pet food’s 70 percent market share in the US pet specialty channel.

In all channels of the US market, natural pet food sales reached US$8.2 billion in 2016, showing 12.1 percent annual growth since 2012 and achieving a 25 percent share, according to Packaged Facts. (I’m surprised the share’s not higher.)

Natural products similarly dominate in human food. “These are now the rules of the game,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova, also in fall 2016. “It’s no longer a trend.” While recent data on sales of natural human foods is mystifyingly difficult to find, it was nearly US$41 billion in 2014, according to Nielsen, and no doubt is even higher now.

Clean label: the new darling in trends

With natural products and claims being so ubiquitous in both pet food and human food that we are past trend status, the new darling in trends among marketers and product developers seems to be “clean label.” In human food, new products launched with clean label claims are growing by double digits globally, Williams said. A recent survey by Kerry, an ingredients company, of 2,600 respondents in the US, UK, France and Germany showed that, of 53 percent of consumers who read food labels and are aware of clean labels, 90 percent say they are willing to pay more for clean label products. Elizabeth Green reported on the study on

No surprise, this awareness is influencing pet food product development and purchasing considerations. “Pet food brands are moving into the clean space by using natural ingredients, promoting the use of single protein sources and using more plant-based ingredients in formulations,” said Melanie Felgate, senior consumer analyst for GlobalData, whose recent report on top trends in pet products highlighted how human trends such as clean eating are prevailing in pet food.

Thus, in a survey conducted by Nutro earlier in 2017, 90 percent of US dog owners said they try to eat to meet “clean food” criteria for humans, and 75 percent said their clean-eating efforts influence what they feed their dogs.

What does clean label even mean?

But the clean label trend seems to be following the natural one in another way – it’s vague and not always clear to consumers. In the Kerry study, only 38 percent of respondents said they have a strong understanding of the definition of clean label. To that term, they also connected others ranging from “farm grown” to “sustainably produced” to “minimally processed” and “made with real ingredients,” Green reported. Though she summarized that range as a “multidimensional opportunity” for food products and brands, it also may lead to consumer confusion and frustration, not to mention closer regulatory scrutiny.

Renetta Cooper, business development director at Kerry, is quoted by Green saying that “confusion still abounds among consumers.” Like Felgate, Cooper also tied consumers’ understanding of clean label to that of natural, which is fraught with its own issues related to confusion. “Even though ‘natural’ is what people perceive as being clean label, non-GMO, organic, free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives is also what clean label can mean,” she said.

Of course, clean label isn’t necessarily being used as a claim on product packaging itself; rather, it’s an umbrella term encompassing many of the claims mentioned above, plus others like gluten free, antibiotic and hormone free (for meat products) and, in the case of pet food, grain free and by-products free. Other claims coming into play include animal welfare-related ones like “humanely sourced,” sometimes accompanied by certification.

In addition, many experts in human food and pet food seem to have a fairly consistent working definition of clean label or clean food that closely aligns with the one Nutro used in its survey: “incorporating whole fruits and vegetables, recognizable ingredients, products with a short/simple ingredient list into your diet and avoiding artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.”

A trend worth watching

Still, like natural, consumers may find clean label to be amorphous and vague, as the Kerry study indicates. The growing popularity of the trend also makes it susceptible to imposters and runs the risk of adding to consumer misunderstandings and concerns about pet food. Our industry would be wise to closely follow how the trend plays out in human food.




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