Health, trust top reasons for pet food clean label trend

Learn about the consumer driving forces behind the clean label trend, as well as where the pet food industry sees the trend going in the future.

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The clean label movement is growing as pet owners continually refine what they’re looking for on pet food bags. | (VLG | iStock.com)
The clean label movement is growing as pet owners continually refine what they’re looking for on pet food bags. | (VLG | iStock.com)

Health — of humans, of animals, of the world in general — has been in the spotlight like never before in the last year and-a-half. And while every industry is dealing with that reality to various degrees, the pet food industry is seeing continued growth in an already popular trend: clean label.

Consumer surveys find pet owners are paying attention

In a survey conducted by Kerry (which recently introduced EverWild, a portfolio of solutions made from “kitchen-friendly” ingredients that aim to help with palatability, appearance and freshness while meeting “clean label” needs), of 330 U.S. dog and cat owners, 90% said they believe it’s important to read ingredient labels before purchasing a pet food or treat. Eighty-six percent said they’re more likely to purchase a pet food or treat if they can recognize most of the ingredients listed on the label, and one-third are willing to pay more for pet food or treats that only include recognizable ingredients (see Figure 1).

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FIGURE 1: Demographics matter when it comes to who’s willing to pay for what. Younger generations, for example, are leading the way when it comes to the clean label trend.

A recent BENEO (a company that provides naturally sourced ingredients derived from the sugar beet, chicory root, rice and wheat) survey on attitudes toward pet foods in the U.S., UK, Brazil, Germany and China found that almost three-quarters of dog owners (73%) and 66% of cat owners look at the ingredients list when purchasing a new pet food product. On the human side, 51% of consumers say that they usually read the ingredients list when shopping for a new food product — highlighting the significant importance owners place on positive nutrition for their pets, even over and above their own. 

What’s more, 73% of dog owners and 70% of cat owners agreed that brands should make it easier to track the origin of the ingredients used in their pet food, for example through an app, meaning that “clean label” isn’t just about what’s in the bag, but where it’s coming from. 

“These findings highlight how the rising human food trends for clean label, transparency and sustainable sourcing are now being echoed in the pet sector and in some instances, are even more pronounced,” said Karel Thurman, commercial director for BENEO Animal Nutrition. “This opens up a huge scope for new product development that taps into these growing areas of interest.” 

Pet owners know what they want — but do they agree on what 'clean label' means?

It can’t be denied that a lot of trend shifts are related to the global events of the last 18 months.

“The pandemic has heightened consumer awareness about an overall healthier lifestyle, including clean label, plant-based proteins and functional ingredients,” said Sandy Boston, customer development manager USA for Caldic, a Netherlands-based company providing a wide range of ingredients and functional custom blends for the pet food industry. “As pet parents, we want the same thing for our precious fur babies. Therefore, human food trends are closely mirroring those in the pet food and treat world.”

But the clean label trend has a bit of a nebulous definition, since the term can mean different things to different consumers. The only solution to this, it seems, is to continue to track what the majority of consumers likely mean when they think “clean label” and do what’s needed to try to hit the nail on the head.

“Consumers are demanding simple and more easily recognizable ingredients,” said Joe Andrus, senior vice president for Scoular’s feed division. “However, clean label is a vague term that can mean different things to different clients. The common theme is using more easily recognizable and fewer higher-processed ingredients, and no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, as well as using fewer ingredients overall.” In 2020 the company launched Petsource, an independent, wholly owned subsidiary that produces high-protein, freeze-dried pet ingredients precisely to meet this kind of demand.

What does this translate to if your direct customer is a pet food manufacturer or formulator?

“Pet brands and manufacturers want to be perceived as even more label friendly to meet the needs of pet consumers,” said Patrick Luchsinger, manager, marketing and business development, pet food segment for ingredient supplier Ingredion. “This means that they are re-evaluating/re-formulating already successfully launched products to make sure they are more label friendly while still maintaining the functionality of the launched product. In new product development they are looking at clean label ingredients that meet the product design requirements and this can include country or origin, the raw material used to make the ingredient, non-GMO, how it is read on a label, supply stability and functionality in the type of application.”

What’s in the future of 'clean label' for the pet food industry?

It is perhaps unsurprising that the clean label trend is within eyesight of another hot topic in pet food: sustainability. So when industry experts were asked what they see in the future of “clean label,” that’s precisely the connection they made.

“Clean label will move into sustainability — how are pet food manufacturers being more conscious of the environment?” said Tammi Geiger, marketing manager U.S. for Oterra, a supplier of natural colors. “How are they producing their products so they are having a positive impact on the planet and even communities? Manufacturers will be asked by their customers to tell their production story and they will therefore put pressure on their ingredient vendors to have sustainability as a main focus. This can be a way to differentiate from other brands as well.”

What’s more, as with most trends the clean label movement will continue to evolve, intersecting with several other trends that all boil down to the same thing: pet owners are paying more attention than ever, and companies must take notice to be successful.

“Demand for pet food and treats with cleaner labels will continue to grow as consumers increasingly seek more transparency in the food supply chain and gain more awareness of the ingredients that are in their food and subsequently their pets’ foods and treats,” said Chad Wethal, marketing manager for Kerry. “Today, clean label is all about what ingredients are or aren’t in a product, but as consumers dig deeper into the origins of their pets’ food and treats, ‘clean labels’ may evolve to become ‘purposeful labels’. Through this ‘purposeful’ lens, I anticipate that brands will go beyond simply removing non-consumer friendly ingredients and increasingly develop compelling backstories behind their ingredients and connect those stories to issues that consumers care about.”

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