Pet food, human food trends: what consumers really want?

The clean label trend in pet food and human food now includes more than just ingredients. The key is ensuring it leads consumers to truly healthy choices.

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(Javier Brosch |
(Javier Brosch |

Clean label has been a trend in both pet food and human food for several years. Now Innova Market Insights, as part of its annual list of human food trends for the year ahead, has elevated it and expanded it to a more encompassing concept that it calls mindful choices.

Or, “call it clean label 10.0, because we’ve been talking about it for 10 years now,” said LuAnn Williams, direction of innovation for Innova, during a webinar on November 21. Yet now consumers have a more holistic idea of what they want in terms of food products: a healthy body as well as peace of mind in terms of sustainability, environmental responsibility and ethical products, she added. I would say all those wants extend to the products they seek to feed their furry family members, too.

Top human food trend for 2018

“Prove it with a number,” Williams gave as her mantra, and she provided plenty of numbers to back mindful choices as Innova’s number one trend for 2018. For example:

  • About 40 percent of US and UK consumers have increased their consumption of what they consider healthy foods;
  • 70 percent of consumers want to know and understand the ingredients list on food products;
  • Consumers from several countries recorded double-digit responses for “real ingredients” as the factor most influencing their purchasing decisions for food and beverage products. The responses ranged from 12.6 percent in Spain to 17.4 percent in the UK, 18.3 percent in Australia, 21 percent in the US and 23 percent in China.

Based on that type of data, it’s no surprise that the share of food and beverage products launched globally with some sort of “better for you” claim increased from 42 percent in 2012 to 49 percent in 2017. Further, global product launches with ethical claims – such as animal welfare, humane raising, environmentally responsible, ethical packaging – rose at a 44 percent compound annual growth rate from 2010 to 2016, Williams said.

Williams was quick to point out that while some of these claims lack scientific backing or regulatory definitions, consumers still want them. “Perception is reality: if consumers think it, even if it’s wrong, that’s their perception, and you have to make products that appeal to them.”

Clean label: leading consumers to better health?

Other research on the clean label trend supports Williams’ assertion. As part of another webinar on November 9, the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute (part of the Kerry Group, a company that provides ingredients for both human and pet foods) shared results of a study it conducted among more than 2,000 consumers in the US, UK, Germany and France. It found that 73 percent of consumers read the ingredients list and 66 percent read the nutritional panel. In addition, 94 percent said they would be loyal to product manufacturers that adopt “complete transparency,” while 99 percent said they would pay more for transparent products.

Again, none of these terms are clearly defined, no more so than clean label is. Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD&A scientist, nutrition, for Kerry, shared a case study showing the unintended consequences of choosing products based on a short ingredients list, often considered a hallmark of the clean label trend. Consumers were given two choices of breads, one with a much longer list of ingredients, including some chemical-sounding names; many believed the product with the shorter list was healthier.

However, some of those chemicals are actually required B vitamins like folic acid, while others are key nutrients like iodine and vitamin D, Pratt said. So in this case, “cleaning up the label” would have the opposite effect of ensuring health for consumers.

Pratt argued that the unarticulated consumer demand behind the clean label trend – what consumers really want and need – is healthy food. (Again, this no doubt applies to their pets’ food, too.) He cited previous research on food behavior, showing it’s often driven by avoidance or attainment. For clean label products, avoidance may be more of a motivator for short-term decisions – for example, when a consumer is in the grocery store trying to select something for dinner that nothing. Attainment might come into play for the longer term, he said.

Still, health motivations and concerns underlie both motivators. “We must ensure that consumers are not misled in any way and in fact choose healthy when using clean label as a guidance in their choices,” Pratt said. Another good example: Not all gluten-free products are the healthier choice for all people, because they may be missing necessary fiber, B vitamins, protein, iron and other nutrients.

Implications for pet food consumers

Pratt’s cautions should resonate with human food and pet food companies. On the human side, Kerry’s research showed that 75 percent of global consumers say they worry about the long-term impact of artificial ingredients, and 80 percent believe these ingredients are harmful to their own or their family’s health.

The key question: Do consumers truly understand which ingredients are artificial, and or do they simply believe label claims such as “no artificial additives or preservatives”? As the pet food industry looks to possibly change the ingredients list, nutrition panel and other elements on its product labels in the US, this has important implications for pet food consumers, too.




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