2013’s Five Hottest Trends In Pet Nutrition

Dr. Patty Khuly

After suffering through seven flights and taking in three trade shows within the first two months of 2013, I got more than I bargained for. Not only did I catch a killer cold on a flight to sin city, I was walloped with information overload on the issue of pet nutrition.

Not that it should be any surprise to anyone, but pet nutrition is a huge growth sector within the pet industry, a fact that even the most casual observer couldn’t ignore if she tried. And if the observer happens to be a veterinarian on the lookout for trends … watch out! This year there are more moving parts in the world of pet foods than I was expecting.

Luckily, I’ve digested most of them here for your consideration:

#1 Formula proliferation

It’s like the manufacturers’ brands all had babies this year. Every year it seems as if there are more formulas out there than ever before, but this year the pet food aisle appears especially crowded. Global Pet Expo had my head swimming with all the new foods on offer.

#2 2013 is apparently the year of the “grain-free” pet food

“Grain-free” is everywhere! Never have I seen so many foods proclaim their freedom from seeds and cereals. Manufacturers laud their granular liberty on decorative gold seals, beauty queen-style banners, and pricey TV commercials, alike.

The idea is threefold:

  • Grains = allergens. And while that’s often true, that isn’t strictly so. After all, given sufficient exposure, pets can develop allergies to turnips and beets as easily as they can to corn and wheat.
  • Pets don’t need so many grains. Which, again, is kinda true. But if a manufacturer substitutes other simple carbs instead, that doesn’t much help a carnivore out, does it?
  • Because GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) suck. The issue has been hotly debated. But let it suffice to say that those who don’t appreciate genetically modified plants in their pet foods would do well to stay away from corn, wheat, and soy (unless specifically listed as “non-GMO” on the label).

All hail the potato!

#3 “Natural” ingredients replace artificial flavors and preservatives

You may know them as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. These synthetic preservatives have long been regarded as suspect by those concerned they might lead to adverse events.

While reports of these to the FDA were not reproducible in the laboratory at the concentrations found in pet foods, it’s nonetheless clear that pet owners are willing to pay a premium for pet foods that employ natural substitutes like rosemary extract, Vitamin E, and other antioxidants.

#4 “By-products” get some definition

Though pet food manufacturers and animal nutritionists have always claimed that by-products are perfectly wholesome ingredients, pet owners have often balked. And, honestly, I can relate. After all, who wants a black box menu item as a stand-in for who-knows-what kind of fat, protein, or carbohydrate.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily picky, but to me it only makes sense that if chicken liver is what’s in there that it get a mention. Calling it by-product means that one day it might be beef heart and the next it could be something else. Why wouldn’t I want to know? Do they think we don’t like the sound of specific organ meats?

#5 Clarity and transparency are IN … confusing terminology is OUT

Definitions matter. And pet owners are smart enough to question them. No longer is it good enough to say your food is “natural,” “human-grade,” “organic” or “holistic.” Consumers are looking out for the following clarifications:

  • “Natural” must be described as per #2, above.
  • As it carries no legal definition, “human-grade” requires an explanation as to how the manufacturer has met safety and sanitation standards equivalent to those required for human foods.
  • By USDA standards, “organic” has a very specific definition. Which explains why consumers increasingly seek the familiar seals third party auditors offer compliant manufacturers.
  • “Holistic” is not a legal term. It’s not even a nutritional term, per se. It merely serves to suggest that a certain philosophy is at play. And some consumers (like me) are starting to get a little exasperated at the murkiness of terms like this.

Give me clarity, I say … or I’ll pick another brand.

These are the current trends I’ve picked up on at this year’s trade shows, but I’m also closely watching some new ones on the horizon. For example, the recent emergence of the private veterinary nutritionist has piqued my interest, as has the nascent rise of the humanely/sustainably sourced designation.

How about you? What have you found waxing or wanting in the world of pet nutrition?

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