From vegan-friendly proteins to clean label ingredients and even insects, today’s pets eat very differently from their domestic and wild ancestors. As consumers become more mindful of what’s in their own food, they’re also studying the nutritional content of their pets’ food, opting for ingredients that are healthier, sustainable, and in line with their values.    

Here are some of the latest ingredients to show up in pet food formulations, or that may be making their way into pet diets in the near future. 

All the buzz about insects

Insects have long been part of diets for exotic pets like reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. In some parts of the world, they’ve even found their way into human food. But, recently, insects are entering dog and cat diets, taking the place of common proteins like beef, poultry, and fish.  

Black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) and crickets are the main players in this movement, as they both rival the amount of protein in livestock sources and contain a wealth of beneficial nutrients. BSFL are especially high in calcium, and crickets are a good source of taurine and amino acids. 

Insects reproduce rapidly, yet they take up a very little space compared to livestock, require significantly fewer resources to process, and are not carriers of common meat pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. They can be kept indoors in environments that are easy to clean. And they’re easy to feed — they will thrive on waste from production lines, like vegetable scraps and spent grains. 

Companies like Yora are already taking advantage of these benefits and bringing insect protein to the pet food market in Europe. In the United States, however, insects are awaiting further research on potential food safety concerns and investigation by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for use in pet food. Treats, on the other hand, do not fall under AAFCO’s nutritional adequacy requirements, since they’re offered on an occasional basis, not as a complete meal. So companies like Jiminy’s are currently marketing their insect-based treats to American pet owners.

Ingredients that promote animal welfare  

For pet owners who don’t feel comfortable feeding their pets slaughtered animals, yet still recognize the importance of protein in canine and feline diets, Bond Pet Foods may have the perfect solution. Using a technique called acellular agriculture, the company found a more humane way to produce animal proteins.  

The process involves culturing animal cells from natural microbes and unharmed animals. 3D-printed DNA sequences instruct those cells to feed on vitamins, sugars, and minerals and produce chicken proteins inside fermentation tanks. Harvested in a consistency similar to that of baby food, those proteins can then be mixed with other important nutrients to create a balanced diet. Though Bond is starting out with chicken protein, the same technology has the potential to create other protein types, too.  

And for pet owners who’d rather avoid meat-based proteins altogether, there’s another ingredient making headlines. It’s a type of mushroom called koji, and vegan dog food manufacturer Wild Earth is taking it to new heights. In addition to its high levels of protein, koji contains all ten amino acids and is sustainable to produce. Wild Earth currently only sells treats with koji, but the company plans to add the superfood to dry dog food later this year

Switching to ancient grains

Concerns about diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) have left some pet owners seeking alternatives to popular grain-free foods that contain potatoes, peas, and lentils. That interest has created an opportunity for formulas using ancient grains like oats, buckwheat, spelt, sorghum, and quinoa instead. 

Ancient grains contain low or no gluten, high amounts of fiber and protein, and a low glycemic index to benefit pets with diabetes or obesity. Farmina’s N&D Low Ancestral Grain product line and American Natural Premium’s new legume-free dog food are some examples of ancient grain pet food recipes.

Additives that benefit pets, humans, and the environment

Egg antibodies

What if one cat food ingredient could reduce symptoms for humans who are allergic to cats? That might soon be a real possibility thanks to scientists at Purina

They discovered that an antibody found in eggs (called IgY) effectively neutralizes the Fel d1 glycoprotein in cat saliva without stopping its production. Typically, cats spread this allergen to their fur during grooming. Fel d1 then binds to the human immunoglobulin E (IgE) and causes allergic reactions. The egg antibody hasn’t entered cat food formulas yet, but, ideally, such a cat food would be able to combat human allergies triggered by cat saliva.   

Miscanthus grass

In pet food, beet pulp, pea fiber, and cellulose are some of the most common sources of dietary fiber, which is important for gastrointestinal health. But since these sources are byproducts of food processing and industrial materials, pet food companies and researchers have been searching for a viable alternative. And they may have found one in Miscanthus grass. 

Though its original use is as a landscape cover, Miscanthus grass has a dietary fiber content of roughly 90% and has thus far proven to be highly digestible in animal trials. In cats, it also seems to reduce the amount of hair in feces and could be a beneficial addition to hairball formulas. 

Taurine from lab-grown meat

Researchers at Because Animals are experimenting with a way to produce a taurine supplement for pet food that’s both vegan and clean label approved. 

Taurine is an essential nutrient that helps prevent dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and promote healthy organ functioning. The problem for pet owners, however, is that it’s most commonly added to diets from animal proteins or from synthetic sources produced in industrial laboratories. By isolating taurine from the cell-cultured muscle tissue of mice, Because Animals hopes to create a meat-free, environmentally-friendly option for taurine supplementation.

Although many of these ingredients are still fresh in the pet food industry, and some aren’t yet approved for the market, early research on their environmental impact and health benefits for pets (and, in some cases, humans) seem promising. Time will tell how quickly they’ll appear in future recipes and what ingredients we’ll see next.