Dogs and cats are pets, right? Well, sure, but these days they might be better described as family members. And these family members eat way better than the pets of old.
“Fifty years ago pets were in the backyard, then they moved into the laundry room, and now they’re all the way into our beds in many cases,” says Scott Morris, co-founder and president of pet food manufacturer Freshpet.
“People look increasingly to their pets for companionship. Also, as people have become very awakened to what they’re eating and the nutrition they’re getting, that’s led to an awakening of what they’re feeding their pets – they want fresher, healthier, less processed food.”
Combine the desire for healthier pet food with the growing number of pets overall – a 2021 survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that 23 million American households acquired a pet during Covid – and the value of the pet food market becomes evident. Spending on pet food jumped by more than 31% in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
No wonder, then, that pet food makers are striving to create more nutritious products. And companies supplying the ingredients for those products are working to tap that market, too.
Mimicking human food
Perhaps the best way to describe the quality of top-flight pet food today is that it basically could be consumed by humans.
“More and more pet owners are purchasing fresh, human-grade pet food brands to supplement their dog’s or cat’s diet,” says Daniel Caughill, co-founder of the blog The Dog Tale. “This is due mostly to the nutritional impact of fresh, gently cooked food, but FOMO [fear of missing out] also plays a role. Emerging pet food brands have done an excellent job of marketing their product as a must-have lifestyle improvement.”
The pet food company called I and Love and You has tapped into the human-grade pet food trend. The company was founded inside a pet store in Boulder, Colo., about a decade ago when a group of employees wanted to expand the store’s high-quality food into a retail brand.
For example, the company offers Baked & Saucy, a line of grain-free kibble made with non-GMO produce and protein. The kibble pieces are coated with bone broth, so when water is added, it creates a saucy bone broth gravy. It comes in two varieties, Chicken + Sweet Potatoes and Beef + Sweet Potatoes. A new product is Irresist-A-Bowls, which are made with sustainably sourced grass-fed beef and cage-free chicken as the first ingredient.
“This little brand is about bringing more human-inspired eating to our pets,” says Michael Meyer, the company’s CEO. “Pets are an extension of ourselves, and what’s good for us humans is certainly good for our pets.”
Lindsey Rabaut, the company’s VP of marketing, says ideas for new products emerge from regular “innovation meetings” where employees talk about trends their seeing or that are appearing on social media. The Baked & Saucy product emerged during one of those meetings.
“We asked, ‘If our pets were going to make a meal, what would it look like and what ingredients would it have?’” she says. “People perceive that pets get bored with the taste of their food, so the Baked & Saucy, which can be served dry or wet, gives them versatility.”
The company sources whole ingredients for its pet food, including meat, fruits and vegetables. Making pet food from those ingredients requires a higher level of care than using pre-manufactured, shelf-stable ingredients.
“Some of our manufacturing partners have never used these ingredients, so we have to work with them how heat is applied, how everything is handled,” Meyers says. “It’s really about careful handling of all the ingredients.”
If you’re making human-grade pet food, you need to make food that matches human trends. Today that means making pet food from plant-based ingredients.
The Spring & Sprout line from Freshpet aims to reach pet owners who prefer feeding plant-based food to their animals. The brand was launched in 2021 and uses protein from a variety of sources — cage-free eggs, peas, soy, beans and oat — plus fruits and vegetables including carrots, cranberries, spinach and pumpkin.
“One of things that we’ve been watching is that millennials and Gen Z, especially, are awake to food and the environment, and they have the highest level of vegetarianism and veganism of any generation,” Morris says. “They really focus on where their food comes from and they care about animal ethics, so we felt that launching a product that is vegetarian would appeal to them.”
Morris explains that creating a plant-based pet food required twice the time required to create one from standard, time-tested ingredients. An issue common to all pet food development is that pets don’t really vary their diet – most eat exactly the same food day after day – so the nutrition must be complete. Creating that kind of food from a new category of ingredients was not easy.
The company’s in-house food scientists, nutritionists and veterinarians developed the product, and then it was presented to an external board that includes Ph.D.s in nutrition and veterinarians who are board-certified in nutrition. Finally, the company conducted long-term feeding studies to make sure the food offered complete nutrition and created no health problems.
“It was challenging to develop all the different pieces of this formula,” Morris says. “The first thing is that it has to look appealing to the consumer. Then it has to be appealing to the dog. And lastly it has to have great nutrition and digestibility, and the stool is very important. We learned that with plant-based food, the stool has more volume and is not as firm.”
Another consideration was what form the food would take. Pet foods are typically either dry, wet or fresh, Morris explains, and traditional processing methods are canning or extrusion, both of which involve relatively high temperatures, which affect the bioavailability of the nutrients.
For Spring & Sprout, the company knew neither canning nor extrusion would work. Instead, the product is lightly steamed, vacuum-packed into a pouch, and must be kept refrigerated.
“We decided to use the least-processed ingredients we could, and cook them the least that we could,” he says. “So our food has better bio-availability and it has no preservatives.”
The product is in limited distribution but Morris is enthused with the prospects. “We’re excited about it so far; it looks like it will be in the top 20% of our products. I think there is more growth ahead in plant-based pet food.”
Ingredient suppliers keeping up
The drive to create more healthy pet food also has been taken up by pet food ingredient suppliers. While the ingredients touted on the front labels of top-quality pet food are things like grass-fed beef or whole vegetables, most still require other ingredients to make a viable product. But those additional ingredients must meet the better-for-you requirements of the highlighted ingredients.
Maypro, which provides a wide range of ingredients that make pet food healthier, has seen demand for these ingredients grow over the past four years, says Danielle Weed, director of marketing strategy and public relations.
“In 2018 we began to see a shift in the types of ingredients pet food manufacturers were purchasing,” Weed says. “It was largely influenced by savvier pet owners concerned about the integrity of their own food and supplement consumption. That focus eventually extended to their pets.
“Manufacturers were prioritizing clinically-proven, high-quality, food-grade ingredients. They also began looking to introduce the more expensive, efficacious patented ingredients to the pet health category. We saw a second bump in business during 2020, likely fueled by the work from the home pet adoption trend, that is still going strong today. Major pet health brands saw an opportunity to expand their portfolio to include high-quality, health-focused pet products.”
Among the ingredients Maypro has recently developed in this category are Champex, a detoxifying and odor-reducing extract of the Agaricus bisporus mushroom that is clinically shown to decrease concentrations of several toxic compounds in the gastrointestinal tract and the blood; KT-11, which is a heat-sterilized, proprietary strain of Lactobacillus crispatus that has been shown to improve skin conditions of dogs with atopic dermatitis; and Juvecol, which features natural proteoglycans from wild caught salmon, a key component of connective tissues such as cartilage, bones, and skin.
Another supplier of healthy pet food ingredients is Kemin (www.kemin.com), which produces sustainably sourced ingredients such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
“As a supplier of pet food antioxidants, we see the consumer demand for natural, healthier pet foods and treats continue to rise as more and more pet owners consider their animals to be part of the family,” the company states on its website. “Kemin’s Naturox line offers natural liquid and dry antioxidants for pet food. Our unique formulation features a synergistic blend of natural mixed tocopherols for superior free radical absorption, along with emulsifiers and chelators for complete protection against autoxidation. That’s why Naturox is a must-have among petfood manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and renderers who are moving away from using synthetic ingredients and chemical preservatives.”
Many manufacturers of healthy pet food include pulses – such as peas, lentils and beans in various forms – in their products. Avena Foods supplies whole pulses, fiber and flour as well as oats to the pet food industry. “Milled on the prairies from North American well cleaned raw materials (no admixture), these ingredients are all non-GMO and are available conventional, gluten-free and certified-organic,” the company says.
The market for high-quality pet food will continue to trend up, observers say. As consumers demand healthier, more sustainably sourced food for their own plates, they want the same for their pets’ bowls.
“Gone are the days of the backyard dog house and giant bag of kibble,” blogger Caughill says. “Millennial pet owners are willing to spend significantly more than their parents on their furry family member. This is true in all areas—pet gear, grooming, daycare, vet expenses, and especially pet food.”