This article was published in the November 2023 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our November digital edition.
As pet parents increasingly give the same level of intention to the care of their pet’s health as they do their own health, they are valuing variety in their pet’s diets and using several approaches from kibble to wet food to supplements and toppers to create a holistic approach to nutrition.
“Premium pet foods have evolved from a convenient one-size-fits-all approach into an intricate variety of unique solutions for individual pets,” said Heather Acuff, Ph.D., director of research and development for Austin, Texas-based Nulo. “The addition of new formats including toppers, treats and supplements allow pet parents to introduce a wider assortment of ingredients, flavors and textures to customize their pet’s meals while providing a nutritional ‘boost’ to their diets.”
Beyond base nutrition
Gone are the days when pet parents simply chose between chicken- or beef-based options, and this shift to a wider variety of nutrition formats has health benefits based on science, noted Danielle Bernal, global veterinarian with Wellness Pet Company, Tewksbury, Mass.
“We very much try to cater to every pet’s unique needs,” she added. “We know not many pet parents are still feeding just dry food alone.”
Overall, Bernal said it is important to begin with a solid base food, and she believes the primary source of a pet’s nutrition should still come from kibble. From there, wet food can be added for hydration or a supplement, and a bowl booster or topper can be added for targeted nutrition to boost the pet’s wellbeing.
“That’s the best way, especially if you have a fussy dog, of ensuring they actually eat that good quality nutrition that delivers those health benefits,” Bernal said.
Wellness Pet Company works to make navigating pet food purchases simple. The company’s CORE line offers base kibble for various sizes and stages of a dog’s life along with toppers, or bowl boosters, that deliver benefits for the heart, immune system, joints, skin and coat. It also offers Simply Shreds Bowl Boosters for added nutrition.
“That’s the philosophy we have: catering to pet parent’s needs, making sure we are giving them really good nutritious formulas but also letting them have different options that are still going to support overall health and wellbeing,” Bernal said.
Chilliwack, British Columbia-based Petcurean is introducing Go! Solutions Boosters as a product line offering a complete-and-balanced meal alternative for cats and a topper for dry dog food to improve palatability. The recipes can be mixed-and-matched to help with joint care, digestive and immune health, weight management, brain health and tranquility, said Natalie Williams, the company’s nutrition manager.
“Offering a variety of options empowers pet parents to tailor their pets’ diets to specific needs, whether it’s addressing dietary sensitivities, supporting specific health goals, or simply indulging their furry friends with flavorful choices,” said Yvethe Tyszka, H&H Group North America.
Other new products on the market include Solid Gold’s new toppers for dogs of all stages and sizes. The offerings include an air-dried jerky that can be used as a complete meal or a topper, a meatball topper with beef designed for digestive and immune support, and protein shreds that aid in digestion and immunity.
“Offering a variety of options empowers pet parents to tailor their pets’ diets to specific needs, whether it’s addressing dietary sensitivities, supporting specific health goals, or simply indulging their furry friends with flavorful choices,” said Yvethe Tyszka, vice president of marketing, Solid Gold Pet and Zesty Paws, H&H Group North America.
“I and love and you” introduced Irresist-A-Bowls in 2022 as a pantry-fresh dog food format. As a fresh food product packaged in a shelf-stable pouch, it can be used as a full meal or act as a meal topper. The company also recently launched a complete-and-balanced wet cat food called Feed Meow that offers different options to benefit digestion, immunity, and skin and coat health in cats. The company also offers treats that promote the same benefits.
Supporting with supplements
While high-quality complete-and-balanced diets should never be taken for granted, pet parents often identify issues in their pet that could use additional support and are looking for supplements that meet those needs, said Greg Reinhart, Ph.D., vice president of research and development, Pet Honesty, Austin, Texas. The company focuses on supplements for a full range of pet needs, including hip and joint health, allergy relief and support with digestion and urinary tract issues.
“It’s an opportunity to tailor health benefits that can provide help for an individual dog or cat’s situation,” Reinhart said. “If you have a dog that has both allergies and skeletal issues, which one do you address? You can’t always do that easily through a complete-and-balanced food alone.”
The idea of providing supplements is appealing to pet parents as most humans take supplements themselves and are open to transferring that concept to their pets.
“It’s a combination of trying to find the right unlock of what a dog or cat will eat and consume readily while also providing that variety and allow the pet parent to be involved and provide input,” Reinhart said.
Pet Honesty recently introduced a multivitamin for puppies that includes DHA for brain health and cognitive development, as well as to help reduce inflammation and enhance overall coat health. The company has also focused heavily on its seven dual-texture cat supplements that deliver a chicken taste with a crunchy outer shell and a savory filling and are formulated for hairball support, calming, hips and joints, immune support, multivitamins, probiotics, and skin and coat health. Reinhart said the products have a nearly 90% feline acceptability rate, which is a notable achievement in the field.
The anti-inflammatory benefits of calcium fructoborate and its ability to improve joints is yet another area of innovation for Pet Honesty. In fact, the company found 78% of pet parents who gave their dog a supplement with the ingredient combined with other commonly used actives for joints noticed an improvement in the pet’s mobility after two weeks.
One of Nulo’s newest product lines includes functional powder supplements made with collagen-rich bone broth. The powders can easily be mixed into a pet’s food to deliver health benefits while giving a pet a more enjoyable experience than a single chew or tablet, Acuff said. The company has eight formulas in the powdered format for gut, mind, skin and joint health.
Choosing the optimal format
Delivering the right balance of ingredients is not only important for providing a pet with proper nutrition, but it’s also an important consideration in how to develop products in certain formats. For example, carbohydrates are a key ingredient in kibble that helps create a crunchy product, and meat meals are ideal kibble proteins because they are concentrated sources of protein with low moisture, Williams said.
“Due to its inherent moisture content, high levels of fresh meat can be a challenge to incorporate into kibble, while wet food recipes with a high final moisture content can be formulated with higher amounts,” Williams said. “Gums are also sometimes used in wet pet food because they help create the perfect texture to support palatability — an important consideration to keeping both pets and pet parents happy.”
Kibble allows for more control of protein and fat, as carbohydrates are essential to this format and allow for balance during formulation. Alternatively, Williams said wet foods include muscle meat high in protein and fat, so many wet food recipes designed to support weight management often include other functional and fiber ingredients and leaner protein sources.
From a formulation perspective, soft chews are produced using a much gentler process involving lower temperature and pressure than dry kibble, which Reinhart said allows many important active ingredients like probiotics to survive.
“The beneficial effects of probiotics in animal health are increasingly recognized, which is evidenced by the popularity of probiotic-containing foods, treats and supplements for pets,” Acuff said. “But the inclusion of probiotics in food matrices can be difficult considering the various ingredients, processing technologies and packaging types available. Moisture content, water activity, acidity, and temperature of processing are just a few factors that need to be considered when developing probiotic-containing foods, toppers, treats or supplements.”
Reinhart added that salmon oil is best for providing optimal levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are difficult to achieve in a food or soft chew but can be easily top-dressed to a main meal to provide health benefits.
Innovation across formats is only growing, and Reinhart said there is work to be done to offer cats nutrition in formats and flavors they will agree to eat. Additionally, he said there needs to be industry-wide efforts to ensure a supplement labels accurately reflect what is delivered.
Moving forward, Bernal said there likely won’t be a game-changing adult chicken recipe developed. Instead, the real breakthroughs will come by researching the unique biology of pets and better understanding their microbiomes to create more targeted nutrition that supports optimal health across their lifespans.
“Premium pet foods have evolved from a convenient one-size-fits-all approach into an intricate variety of unique solutions for individual pets,” said Heather Acuff, Ph.D, Nulo.
The future is filled with possibilities in product development, but Acuff identified key parameters that will drive innovation.
“As we look to the future, the pet food industry is being ushered into a phase where product formats, ingredients and processing technologies come together into potentially infinite combinations,” she said. “At the same time, we need to deliver on expectations for products that are less-processed, nutritionally dense, functional and sustainable, while still being affordable, shelf-stable, and convenient to use. Advancements in ingredient processing, manufacturing and packaging technology will be crucial for innovative products to be able to meet all of these needs.”
Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.