Information About Limited-Ingredient Diets

Pet diets with abbreviated ingredients lists are on the rise, but retailers must understand what these foods offer and how to evaluate the options on the market to succeed in this category.




Whole 30, keto, paleo—there’s no shortage of trending diets in the human world that focus in some way on eliminating or significantly restricting certain types of foods. This trend has emerged in the pet food world in the form of limited-ingredient diets (LID), in which, ideally, a short ingredient list delivers maximum nutrition.


But just as not every person is signing on to cut out carbs or eat only raw foods, limited-ingredient diets might not be at the top of the list for every pet or owner. So who are these diets for, and what benefits can they provide?


“The LID category was created because some healthy pets have dietary sensitivities that manifest as an allergy symptom,” says Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion Petfoods. “To provide an optimal diet for these animals, recipes are developed to reduce the variety of ingredients and protein sources.”


Heather Hickey, vice president of sales for ZIWI USA, further explains that limited-ingredient diets can potentially help pet parents reduce the chance of their pets developing allergies in the first place through rotating protein sources.


“Some holistic veterinarians suggest that rotating proteins can help prevent allergies,” Hickey says. “This is achieved by feeding a single meat protein for a limited time, then switching to a different meat protein. An LID diet ensures that the pet is ingesting only the single intended protein when rotating to a different diet.”


As Michael Landa, founder of Nulo Pet Food, points out, the quality and type of food that a pet is eating can have significant impacts on their health in a variety of ways, impacting both pet and pet parents. Particularly for pets that may have specific dietary restrictions, a high-quality, accessible limited-ingredient diet can improve pets’ well-being and give them more quality time with their owners.


“One of the most frequent comments we receive from pet parents who are searching for a limited-ingredient diet is that they’re not impressed with the quality of the ingredients in an expensive food they can only purchase from their veterinarian,” says Landa. “Nulo’s Limited+ formulas offer a unique solution by being widely available and provide their pet with a meat-based diet made with quality ingredients that they can feel good about feeding their pet.”


Less is More

While these types of diets certainly have advantages, limited can be a subjective term—at what point is a diet no longer limited? Retailers will have to determine for themselves what defines limited-ingredient diets for their store. Manufacturers have a variety of ideas for what makes the cut, but for Tuffy’s Pet Foods, it’s very simple.


“Limited-ingredient diets are made up of only one meat source and usually one carb source,” says Rob Merolla, regional sales manager for Tuffy’s.


Since limited-ingredient diets can be helpful for pets with food allergies or general digestive sensitivity, a single meat source makes it easier for pet parents to know exactly what’s in a diet and determine what proteins are a good option for their dog or cat. However, some manufacturers in this category take a slightly more flexible approach.


“Consumers generally consider a diet limited ingredient as long as it has a single meat protein source,” says Hickey. “If a second meat protein is used, it must be one that is not seen as a common allergen, such as green-lipped mussels, and some white fishes.”


Other manufacturers focus on creating simple, healthful diets that can suit pets with sensitivities to certain ingredients or that appeal to pet owners’ desire for clean nutrition.


“A limited-ingredient diet is a less complex recipe intended for healthy pets with dietary sensitivities or for pet lovers who are looking for a simpler and cleaner ingredient statement,” says Washington. “While there are no set upper limit guidelines for LID diets, ACANA Singles focuses on a single meat source and no more than five macronutrient (protein, carb, etc.) ingredients. At Champion, we would define an optimal LID solution like our ACANA Singles line as a food with at least 60 percent meat ingredients.”


At Natural Balance, defining limited-ingredient diets is focused more on achieving a balanced diet that meets the nutritional needs of the pet, rather than simply minimizing the ingredient list.


“The approach is more important than the absolute number of protein sources,” says Brian Ng, vice president of marketing for Natural Balance. “Keep the focus on overall health to make sure the diet is complete and balanced, so the dog or cat is going to receive all the nutrients it needs.”


Landa echoes this focus on complete and balanced nutrition first, pointing out that reducing the number of ingredients in a diet is not necessarily beneficial on its own.


“All too often, the quest for fewer ingredients comes at the expense of providing optimal nutrition for dogs and cats,” says Landa. “More important than the quantitative number of ingredients is the formula design and the types of ingredients used to create a diet.”


Trending Up

Especially as humans become increasingly conscious of allergens and food sensitivities for themselves, limited-ingredient diets have grown in popularity as consumers’ awareness of the same issues in their pets increases. The category also benefits from the current trend toward clean eating and whole-food focused diets for people.


“The limited-ingredient diet category has seen strong, consistent growth as more people turn to limited-ingredient diets to help ensure their pets’ health and well-being,” says Ng. “As clean, simple eating rises in human food trends, more consumers are turning to limited ingredients for simplicity in their pets’ diets as well.”


Within the category, several key trends are emerging. Some manufacturers are seeking out more exotic proteins, such as kangaroo, to offer more options to pet parents dealing with multiple allergies in their pets. Meat-first formulations that focus on high-quality proteins at the forefront of a short ingredient list are also growing in popularity.


Landa points out that increasingly short ingredient lists can have drawbacks, however, noting that fewer ingredients don’t guarantee better nutrition. Manufacturers, retailers and pet owners should consider diets that include ingredients with maximum functionality, rather than those with high quantities of white potatoes, tapioca starch or other high-glycemic ingredients.


“Pets with hypersensitive immune systems which are constantly overreacting to antigens in their environment or in their food benefit from well-rounded nutrition,” says Landa. “Ingredients like salmon oil, miscanthus grass, inulin and a patented probiotic are just a few ingredients that have been chosen with a great deal of consideration to provide benefits that go beyond simply reducing the number of ingredients in our recipes.”


As is frequently the case with specialized diets, in-store engagement and customer education are key to informing pet owners about these options and guiding them toward the right choice for their pet.


“Champion believes there is a need for brands and retailers to help educate pet lovers on how to read an ingredient panel and nutrition label,” Washington says. “Whether this is through communication at the shelf, floor staff training, online at retailer web sites or events in the stores, it’s important to help customers understand the terms and descriptions provided on a product label and how this information relates to their pet’s needs.”


Landa also advises retailers to take a consultative approach when helping a customer find the right food for their pet, seeking to identify what solutions they’re seeking and their priorities for their pet’s diet. He recommends asking specific questions about what has prompted the pet owner to consider switching foods, important features of the pet’s environment and lifestyle, and what qualities they prioritize in selecting a diet.


“With this type of approach, retailers can gently point pet parents in the direction of the appropriate product lines, educate the pet parent about the reasons for their recommendation and allow the consumer to make a confident, informed purchasing decision,” Landa says.


As with any time a pet owner is considering switching foods, retailers should take the opportunity to understand the customer’s needs and reasons for making a change to ensure a limited-ingredient diet is the right option for them. Pet specialty retailers should make sure
they and their sales associates understand the nuances and benefits of the diets on their shelves to enable them to recommend the most suitable option for each individual pet.


“Consumers need to understand why they’re feeding the formulas that they’re choosing, and it is important that they can look to the store associate to provide this expert advice,” Ng says. “In many cases, consumers might be entering the store having only been educated through branded advertising, such as TV commercials. However, every pet is different, and every pet has different needs. This is where the store associate becomes a valuable resource to educate the consumer in an effort to create a positive experience and build a long-term, trusted relationship that leads to repeat sales.”


Limited-ingredient diets also offer a natural opportunity for cross-promotion, thanks to their single-protein, meat-first focus. If a customer is already looking for specific proteins in their pets diets, perhaps due to allergies or sensitivities, or for a rotational approach to feeding, retailers should take the opportunity to group product lines by protein, making it easy for a customer to find the right wet food, dry food, treats or other consumables, all in one place.


When selecting limited-ingredient diets for their store, retailers should take care to ensure the products contain a quality protein source in nutritionally
optimal proportions. As with any kind of pet food, not every option in the category is created equal.


“Some LIDs out there have a very low meat content and low calorie content, yet still can be very expensive. This should be a red flag on quality and value,” Merolla says. “The best evaluation comes from customer feedback, and the more good feedback a retailers hears about a diet’s performance the more they will recommend that diet.” PB


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