Most people consider their pets part of the family and want to treat them as such, especially when it comes to what and how they feed them. And as pet owners gravitate toward plant-based meals, functional foods, and other better-for-you trends in their own diets, their shifting preferences are trickling down to their pet food purchases.
To learn more about current pet food ingredient trends, we asked Jorge Martinez Carrillo, President of Pet Solutions at ADM, to share some insights and discuss how manufacturers can respond to these trends while providing pets with the best possible nutrition.
With the humanization of pets driving many of the emerging trends in pet food, “pet food manufacturers are therefore challenged to understand how trends in human nutrition may be affecting pets,” Carrillo said, “and how they can adapt them in a nutritionally safe and beneficial way.”
All natural, sustainable ingredients
In pursuit of optimal nutrition for their pets, pet owners are looking closely at ingredients — not just what they are, but where they come from, how they’re produced, and how they support pet health and wellness. “Our research finds that 30% of global pet owners spent a significant amount of time researching the best food options in the last year,” said Carrillo.
One of the things they’re checking for is that the food contains only natural ingredients, nothing artificial. Carrillo pointed to The Future of Pet Food Market Report 2021 from Mintel, which reported a 41% increase in “all natural” pet foods launched globally.
And as concerns about sustainability rise, more pet owners will be looking into the sustainability aspects of the pet food they purchase, including its environmental footprint and the treatment of animals used in the recipes. “During the next year, we anticipate increasing consumer demand for ingredients that are traceable and sustainable,” Carrillo said. “Awareness and interest in ethical and environmental claims are set to grow, and brands that are transparent about their sourcing will be more likely to win with conscientious consumers.”
More protein options
Just as many consumers have increased their intake of plant-based foods, more than half of pet owners are showing interest in feeding more plant-based proteins to their pets. For pet owners who wish to completely eliminate animal meats, some pet food companies have already introduced meatless pet foods that include plant-based proteins and/or eggs — Freshpet, Natural Balance, and Wild Earth, to name a few.
But many pet owners are simply seeking out pet foods that incorporate more beneficial fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based ingredients. “There is growing interest in flexitarian-style, plant-forward pet foods that feature alternative proteins like beans, pulses, and ancient grains,” Carrillo said.
Grain-free diets haven’t gone out of style, but “grain-free foods do not offer additional health benefits over a food that contains traditional or ancient grains,” Carrillo noted. As pet owners become more aware of this, they may be exploring more grain-inclusive diets for their animals.
Ancient grains, Carrillo said, “deliver protein, starch, and dietary fiber. Additionally, traditional grains like corn and wheat are as biologically appropriate as other popular sources of carbohydrates in today’s pet foods.”
Insect protein could become more prevalent in the pet industry as consumers seek a more sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their pets. While there may be some who are squeamish about this idea, it looks like many pet owners are willing to give it a try — 43% are open to the idea of feeding insect protein to their pets.
And the opportunity for pet food manufacturers to begin researching and formulating pet foods with insect protein could be on the horizon, as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) tentatively approved the use of dried black soldier fly larvae in adult dog food last year.
Functional ingredients and superfoods
ADM is also seeing “greater demand for science-backed, real-food solutions that support proactive and holistic health management,” Carrillo said. This may take the form of foods that address health challenges like obesity, allergies, and aging or boost overall immune, digestive, and oral health. Personalization trends may also drive up demand for pet food that targets the needs of specific age groups, breeds, and sizes.
These formulas rely on functional ingredients that support healthy systems. For example, “botanical extracts may contain phytonutrients that help increase the integrity and maintenance of the intestinal tract or natural antioxidants that can support immune function,” Carrillo explained. “Probiotics, prebiotics, and postbiotics are increasingly common to manage the gut microbiome and support overall health.”
The first step toward bringing new ingredients into the mix is extensive research. “It’s important to understand that pets need nutrients, not ingredients,” Carrillo noted. “Before a novel ingredient makes its way into pet foods or treats, it should be validated through research to ensure it is acceptable for pets and will nutritionally support a balanced diet.”
That’s why ADM partnered with University of Illinois researchers to further study plant- and yeast-based proteins and their applications in pet food. They concluded that pea, potato, faba bean, and soy protein concentrates, as well as dried yeast concentrates, are quality sources of proteins and essential amino acids. Combined with the right ingredients, these protein concentrates can help meet the nutritional requirements of dogs and cats while providing new and alternative protein sources.
Veterinary recommendations are also a major influencer of how consumers feel about feeding certain ingredients to their pets and can help clear up misunderstandings. Carrillo referenced ADM’s research on consumers’ longstanding avoidance of soy in pet food. After exposure to veterinary research about the unlikelihood of canine and feline soy allergies, 28% of pet owners said they’d consider feeding soy to their pets in the future. Younger generations were more likely to have this changed opinion about soy.
Of course, when working with new ingredients, pet food manufacturers also have to ensure they’re complying with federal regulations and labeling requirements and selecting suppliers that reliably provide safe, quality ingredients. Pet owners often chase after trends because they’re looking to give their pets longer, healthier lives. So it’s not worth trying out new ingredients if they could potentially do more harm than good.
“No matter the ingredient,” Carrillo concluded, “safe and healthy pet food is developed as a complete formulation to meet the animal’s optimal nutrient requirements for all life stages, from puppy or kitten to senior.”