Pet owners want to trust the products they purchase and to believe they are serving their four-legged family members the best food available. “One way to earn consumer trust is to go clean label,” says David Sprinkle, research director, Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland. “Clean-label strategies include offering transparency around both ingredients and processing and having a product with a short list of ingredients that are familiar to the pet owner.”

Clean-eating shoppers are seeking out pet food attributes that they require in their own foods. They are researching brands and their ingredient-sourcing practices. “Stroll down a pet food aisle in a grocery store, and you’ll notice many of the same label callouts you see in other parts of the store, such as contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives; non-GMO; locally sourced; and limited number of simple ingredients,” says Jeannie Swedberg, director of business development, Tree Top Inc., Selah, Washington. “Pet parents apply a human lens when choosing which foods to purchase.” 

“There are many parallels between pet foods and the rest of the food industry; in fact, the top trends are identical,” Swedberg says. “This means it’s no surprise that ingredients used in human foods are becoming commonplace in pet foods, including fruits and vegetables.”

John Haen, president and chief executive officer, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wisconsin, says, “The recent humanization trend in pet food is one of the primary market trends driving a plethora of new products. Today, pets are not only part of the family, but in some instances, these furry beings are people’s children.” Pet owners recognize that animals do have different nutritional needs, hence the reason they buy pet food instead of serving table scraps. But, they have become more critical of what goes into the food. Many want to know the purpose of the ingredient and will no longer settle for inexpensive fillers or anything artificial.

“If a pet food does not appear to have a clean label, such as if it contains additives or preservatives, then the manufacturer should explain why those ingredients were added and how they benefit the product,” says Moira Watson, vice-president of marketing and communications, Watson Inc., West Haven, Connecticut. “Even vitamins and minerals can have long, complicated names. But they provide important health benefits and contribute to a higher quality product. Educating pet owners through transparent labeling and science is key to building trust.”

“The more niche the product, the more important it is to have not only a deep understanding of the product but also multiple procurement sources,” says Mark Obrist, merchandiser, The Redwood Group.

More than half (56%) of pet parents surveyed by Packaged Facts in January and February 2018 said they strongly agree or somewhat agree that they trust pet food formulations backed by scientific research. That figure jumps to 62% when the scientific basis of dietary components is communicated from a veterinarian.

The survey showed that, in general, pet owners have about the same amount of trust in all types of pet food manufacturers, whether they are small regional companies, natural and organic marketers, or mass market brands. It’s less about the brand and company and more about the communication of what’s inside. 

Family meal time

“Love them like family. Feed them like family.” That’s the tagline for Blue Buffalo Co., Wilton, Connecticut, an all-natural pet food company founded by pet parents for pet parents. Minneapolis-based General Mills is set to close on the purchase of the company by the end of 2018.

Blue Buffalo is all about wholesome ingredients and the benefits those ingredients provide. The website contains a glossary of every ingredient that can be found in any of its cat and dog foods and explains its function. The brand prides itself on using human-grade ingredients, and its customers are willing to pay a premium.

In addition, all of Blue Buffalo’s foods include LifeSource Bits, a proprietary precise blend of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants selected by holistic veterinarians and animal nutritionists. These include ingredients that help support a pet’s immune system and specific life stage requirement, as well as help maintain a healthy oxidative balance.

“We ‘cold form’ our LifeSource Bits to minimize the loss of potency that occurs in many vitamins and nutrients when exposed to extreme heat. This is an important difference between Blue and other brands because other brands process their food with high heat. Heat can destroy the potency of some nutrients, particularly antioxidants, by up to 75%,” according to the company.

The function of each ingredient and how Blue Buffalo products deliver nutrients is a large part of the brand’s story that the company shares with consumers.
This transparency in ingredients and communication of the process is the foundation of the clean-label movement in the pet food processing industry. It’s all about talking to pet owners and providing them assurance that they are making the best choices.

In early 2017, Nutro Products Inc., Nashville, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., relaunched its brand with a new feed clean pet food philosophy. The Nutro Feed Clean brand of dog and cat food promises to make recipes that are simple, purposeful and trustworthy, made with real, recognizable, non-GMO ingredients and as close to their native form as possible. The brand vowed to never use ingredients such as chicken by-product meal, corn, wheat or soy protein ever again. 

As part of its clean-label efforts, many Nutro brands now emphasize how the animal proteins were raised, such as pasture-fed lamb or farm-raised chicken. Some recipes include whole grains while others are grain free, an option for dietary restrictions. Whole fruits and vegetables are key to many formulations, and the brand never adds artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.

In line with the new philosophy, the brand also introduced a new Limited Ingredient Diet product line of dry food for dogs. All of the offerings in the new line contain 10 or fewer key ingredients, plus natural flavors, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They are crafted without ingredients such as chicken, beef or grains that may cause food sensitivities in dogs. Protein sources are duck, lamb, salmon and venison.

Merrick Pet Care, Amarillo, Texas, recognizes that pet owners associate clean ingredients with transparency and sustainability. “Just as pet parents put a lot of care and effort into what they eat, many also care deeply about how they feed their pets — not just the quality of ingredients, but how those ingredients are sourced or cared for before they make it to their pet’s bowl,” says Lindsey Fash, vice-president of marketing for Castor & Pollux at Merrick.

In response, the company introduced the purposeful pet food commitment in 2017. Part of this effort included developing an organic and responsibly sourced ingredient supply chain for pets. Many of the ingredients were previously unavailable in an ample, consistent supply.

“We know that the majority of US households are buying organic food on a regular basis, and this trend is starting to influence how pet parents are buying food for their pets,” says Tim Simonds, president of Merrick. “Our Castor & Pollux Organix USDA certified organic pet food continues to experience growth. It’s a complete line of food for dogs and cats made with 95% or more certified organic ingredients.”

The company also now offers the Castor & Pollux Pristine line of pet food, which is made with responsibly sourced ingredients. “The first ingredient in our meat and poultry recipes comes from animals that are responsibly raised with access to fresh air, natural light and space to roam, such as free-range chicken and turkey and grass-fed lamb and beef,” Simonds says. “And, the first ingredient in our seafood recipes comes from responsibly caught fish, like wild-caught salmon, tuna and whitefish. We also source fruits and vegetables that are responsibly grown without synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides on farms that care for the earth.”

The company recently renovated its popular Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet dry and wet dog recipes to feature fewer total ingredients. The improved recipes provide complete and balanced nutrition from a single source of animal protein and feature only eight key ingredients plus added vitamins and minerals.

Protein and beyond

Protein ingredient details are likely the most important to many pet owners. Some prioritize single source without concern on form. Others prefer whole muscle or minimally processed protein ingredients, while others just want the protein to be sustainably raised or organic. They are accepting of ingredients identified as by-products and meat meals.

Brands are defining clean as organic, non-GMO or no artificial preservatives and going beyond that to promise a commitment to selecting only responsibly-raised and sustainably sourced ingredients.
“Rendering involves the processing of animal by-products into fats and meals that can be used in pet foods,” says Paul Peebles, business manager, Ivanhoe Industries Inc., Zion, Illinois. “This process generates foam that reduces the efficiency of the production line. Antifoam chemicals are added to the process to control the foam, but these chemicals are typically synthetic in nature and would not allow the rendered product to be used in an organic pet food.” 

Ivanhoe Industries has developed antifoam products made from all natural and organic certified ingredients that can adequately control the foam in the rendering process. This allows the rendered products to achieve an organic certification.

American Seafoods Company LLC, Seattle, provides pet food manufacturers with sustainable Wild Alaska Pollock. This high-quality protein is sourced fresh from the Bering Sea of Alaska. The fish are processed on the boats within six hours of harvest, thus they have significantly fewer biogenic amines than other fish meals, according to Jean-Francois Herve, senior sales and business development manager-pet food ingredients.

“Some seafood operators combine several species into products, such as fish meal, varying the composition of that product depending on what they have available on that given day,” he says. Such sourcing would not be considered clean label by many pet owners. They want to know the type of fish and where it came from. “To do this you must have a secure and consistent supply. Wild Alaska Pollock is the largest sustainable fishery in the world enabling a consistent, high-volume supply,” Herve says. “The improved control of the supply chain leads to a higher-quality product for the pet.”

“Innovative pet foods brands are using stories and certifications to build their image based on the ingredient story. Whether the story focuses on sourcing or protein type or sustainability, these stories help pet parents feel proud of the brands they purchase,” Herve explains. “Some brands are starting to involve their suppliers’ stories.”

The Wild Alaska Pollock Fishery was the first large scale fishery to achieve Marine Stewardship Council certification in 2005. Pet foods made with these fish products may include the logo on packaging and marketing materials.

A number of other varied ingredients are used in pet food formulations to make them palatable, safe and nutritious. “Vitamins and minerals are added to pet foods for health benefits,” Watson says. “Although pets require only small amounts of vitamins and minerals, these essential nutrients are still important in the diet. vitamin A, for example, supports growth, reproduction and eye health.”

Vitamin E is often included, as it acts as an antioxidant to protect against fat oxidation, which produces unwanted flavor changes. This makes the food unpalatable even to non-picky pets. There are a number of plant-based extracts that function as antioxidants, too, with rosemary the most common in pet food.

“The improved control of the supply chain leads to a higher-quality product for the pet,” says Jean-Francois Herve, senior sales and business development manager-pet food ingredients, American Seafoods Company.

Fiber ingredients frequently get added to pet foods. Many contribute function to the recipe while also assisting with the pet’s gastrointestinal health and regular bowel movements. Fiberstar is rolling out a natural citrus fiber designed to improve the texture, enhance nutrition and provide cost savings in pet food and treats. It is sustainably produced from a by-product of the citrus fruit. The patented technology is a mechanical process that is free from chemicals and opens up the fiber to provide high water-holding capacity and emulsification properties.

“It offers a multitude of benefits in various pet treats,” Haen says. “In injection molded bones, this natural fiber aids in flowability and mold release as well as adds strength to extend chew times. In semi-moist treats, this natural fiber binds the water to improve the meat-like texture in addition to minimizing crumb. Other benefits include moisture retention, reduced stickiness and texturizing.”

Fruits and vegetables provide nutrition and functional benefits. In addition, they have that whole food appeal that pet owners appreciate. “People love fruit, and we know fruit is good for us,” Swedberg says. “Fruit powders, concentrates and purées make attractive ingredients for pet food or treat formulations, as they contribute antioxidants, fiber and a host of other benefits, including ensuring food safety and extending shelf life.”

A key factor in shelf life and food safety is water activity. Water activity, not water content, controls microbial growth because microorganisms such as yeast, mold and bacteria only use the available water in a food system. Total moisture is either in a free or a bound form, with the free water considered available. Designing a product with water activity below 0.60 is an effective control, although it is not equivalent to a thermal kill step.

“Dried fruits, for example, may extend shelf life in baked dog treat applications and other pet food systems,” Swedberg says. “That’s because many dried fruits possess a high-fiber content and bind water. Some fruit ingredients, may also lower pH.” Acidic environments ward off the growth of many bacteria. Citrus fruits may help lower pH, but pets often find them to be too acidic. “Apples, blueberries and strawberries, on the other hand, are lower in pH and can assist,” Swedberg says.

Manufacturers must remember that each ingredient has its own set of supply challenges, much like human food ingredients. “The more niche the product, the more important it is to have not only a deep understanding of the product but also multiple procurement sources,” says Mark Obrist, merchandiser, The Redwood Group, Mission, Kansas. “Work with ingredient supply companies that understand the ingredients they source. They are experts in those ingredients and will typically work to provide pet food manufacturers value by procuring high-quality products, regardless of market situations.”

Keep up with the latest pet food trends on our Trends page.