The trend for high protein pet food products seems to be here to stay. It’s standard practice in today’s market for all brands to offer at least one high protein option in their product portfolio. Further, for many years now, pet food manufacturers have explored the utilization of novel and niche proteins in addition to traditional animal proteins (i.e. beef, poultry, fish, etc.). One could argue that the incorporation of niche proteins in pet food formulations should no longer be deemed a trend — rather, a necessary long-term option in a product portfolio.
While the protein types that we see infiltrate the pet food industry vary from year to year, niche proteins are not leaving the pet food market in the near or distant future. In fact, pet owners are becoming more discriminant in their selection of proteins in their pet’s diets. Pet food formulations that incorporate lower-quality animal proteins are generally viewed as inferior. As a result, pet food manufacturers are forced to look towards high-quality proteins which have previously not been considered in the ingredient stream for their industry. As the pet food industry continues to utilize more — and higher quality — protein, the demand results in competition with proteins intended for human consumption. Currently the demand of the pet food industry is not currently at a level which could impact the supply of proteins for human consumption. However, as meat consumption and pet ownership increase globally (in response to an improved global economy), the demand for high-quality proteins in pet food manufacturing may not be sustainable.
History tells us that trends in human foods eventually make their way into the pet food industry. Mars Pet Nutrition recently noted that previously, human trends took five to seven years to reach the pet food industry. Now, human food trends transition into the pet food industry within a modest two years. In the past few years, there has been a noticeable “humanization” of pet food products and largely, pet owners want their pets to consume a diet that is similar to their own. Recently, perhaps the most pervasive human food trend to impact the pet food industry is a focus on the social/value-based traits regarding pet food ingredients — namely proteins. Now, not only do pet owners prefer a pet food with protein as the primary ingredient, they have an increasing interest in how the protein was procured and processed. The demand for and production of pet food products which meat value-based criteria (i.e. organic, all-natural, local, etc.) is rising exponentially. Similarly, as observed in the human food sector for several years, modern pet owners tend to prefer a diet which excludes ingredients they believe to be harmful or offer no nutritional value (i.e. GMOs, hormones, artificial preservatives, etc.). Scientifically, no data exists to demonstrate the health benefits of such rations. Nonetheless, the perceived health benefits will continue to drive an increase in these protein options.
The adoption of non-animal-based proteins quickly, and successfully, transitioned from the human food to pet food market. However, perhaps the most interesting, if not controversial, human protein trend is the rapidly rising interest in animal-proteins derived from cell-culture, or “fake meat.” The regulatory landscape around these products in the human food sector is still being determined. Furthermore, the commercial-scale production of such products may be several years in the future. However, as noted, trends which influence the human food sector eventually transition into the pet food industry. Some companies, including Boulder, Colorado-based Bond Pet Foods, are forecasting that the pet food industry may be the perfect landscape for such a novel protein. Therefore, in the near future, it is likely that pet food manufacturers will also have the conversation of where — if at all — these products fit into the pet food portfolio.
The conversations regarding proteins and their uses in the pet food industry have evolved tremendously over the past several decades. If we look to trends seen in the human food sector, it is evident that these conversations will continue to challenge pet food manufacturers to explore new options without sacrificing the quality, nutrition, or value of their products.
Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., is currently an Assistant Professor in Meat Quality and Safety in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. She performs research related to the safety and quality of animal products and also serves as the leader for the industry-led Pet Food Alliance.
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