Limited Ingredient Diets

With more people seeking out limited-ingredient and grain-free recipes, these offerings have moved into the mainstream.




Vanishing are the days when any old bag of kibble or canned food would do. Dogs will wolf down almost anything, so why be picky, right? Wrong. Today’s enlightened pet owners understand that food and treats can make a huge difference in pet health—a realization inspiring more people to consider limited-ingredient and grain-free offerings.

Limited-ingredient formulas can offer help to dogs suffering from food sensitivities or allergies, and can also enable owners to identify what might be causing the pet’s problem. For example, formulas incorporating several different protein sources can make it challenging to determine which one might be troubling the animal. Ditto for those containing multiple other non-protein ingredients, such as additives, fillers, artificial colors, soy, wheat and so on. However, because of their very nature, limited-ingredient diets make this detective work much less onerous.

Heather Acuff, product development manager for Austin, Texas-based Nulo, says its conversations with customers revealed that finding relief from troublesome food-related symptoms was a primary driver behind the interest in limited-ingredient diets.

“Whether it’s itchier-than-usual skin, flatulence or intermittent gastrointestinal disturbances, limited-ingredient diets serve the purpose of helping alleviate issues that other foods have failed to solve,” she explains. “Avoidance of exposure to allergens is one of the most common strategies pet owners are using, and limited-ingredient diets provide a variety of nutritionally-balanced options for their pet to try.”

Grain-free recipes, which typically limit ingredients themselves, can serve the same purpose.

“There are many dogs with allergies or sensitivities to grains, which can result in symptoms like gastrointestinal upset, fur shedding, skin rashes and excessive itching,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for Wellness Natural Pet Food, a family-owned company in Tewksbury, Mass. “As a result, pet parents turn to grain-free recipes to manage their dog’s sensitivities.”

Although every dog needs vary, and not every diet is right for every dog, grain-free formulas can be a good choice for many, says Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, nutrition manager at Petcurean Pet Nutrition, headquartered in Chilliwack, BC, Canada.

“Grain-free diets are another option in our nutrition toolbox to provide diets with different ingredient choices,” Adolphe explains. “Some pets do well with grains, and some seem to do better without. Grain-free diets allow pet owners another choice in order to provide their pet with a diet that works best for them.”

Although many pet owners have experienced positive results from feeding a grain-free diet, particularly where food sensitivities are causing issues, both grain-free and grain-inclusive have their place, says Chase Rasmussen, vice president of Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods/KLN Family Brands.

Products & Trends
Along with the concern over food sensitivities and allergies, the clean-label trend is another factor propelling interest in limited-ingredient options, says Acuff.

“Some pet owners are looking for fewer, more recognizable ingredients on the label, and limited-ingredient diets check those boxes by design,” she explains. “We knew when entering this category that simple is rarely easy and that we would need to find a way to innovate in a space that has been dominated by brands focusing on value over nutrition. When we first decided to launch a line of limited-ingredient diets, we set out to apply our high-meat, low-carb nutritional philosophy to the category.”

Don King, vice president of marketing for Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Champion Petfoods, says the company prefers to describe its products simply as biologically appropriate.

“Champion doesn’t believe the discussion on what constitutes a higher-quality pet food should begin with grains/no grains,” says King. “Biologically appropriate pet food is formulated to be respectful of the nutritional requirements and physiology of dogs and cats, who are carnivores. Removing grain from a recipe is one thing; what replaces it is another.”

Limited-ingredient and grain-free products are becoming so mainstream that they are being purchased by all dog owners, not just those trying to identify or solve a specific problem, says Leary-Coutu. However, she cautions, pet specialty retailers should stress to their customers the importance of consulting with a veterinarian before making mealtime choices.

Sales Strategies
There’s increased consumer interest in ingredient sourcing and environmental sustainability—how recipes are manufactured, packaged, stored and shipped. Pet specialty retailers should educate themselves in these areas to heighten their appeal to customers and encourage repeat sales and visits.

Earning the customer’s trust is essential for sales, as is capturing their attention, says Adolphe. That should start long before they walk through your doors.

“Social media is a great way to communicate your core values, educate on key nutritional topics and products, and run fun and exciting engagement opportunities, like giveaways and photo contests,” Adolphe says. “Further, social media offers businesses quite sophisticated demographic targeting capabilities and is relatively cost effective compared to more traditional marketing strategies.”

However, once customers step inside, much will rest on making the store shoppable, with well-merchandised, orderly and coherent shelves offering an array of options. Signage that immediately transmits essential information, such as pricing, ingredients and product positioning, is also essential.

“Consumers have determined the quality of the food they eat has a direct link to the quality of their lives,” says King. “The same perspective has transferred to how they wish to feed their pets. Pet lovers are willing to pay more for a quality diet… assuming the ingredient value for the increased price point is clear and understandable.”

And, since premiumization “is taking hold in every corner of the pet care marketplace,” it only makes sense for retailers to organize their stores around higher-quality solutions, King continues, such as dedicating the most desirable in-store real estate to brands that fit that description and make a point of being transparent in their ingredients, sourcing and production.

Still, one of the best weapons in a retailer’s arsenal is a friendly and knowledgeable staff willing to engage customers, says Adolphe. And although she emphasizes that pet owners should always consult with a veterinarian regarding feeding, store employees can assist in steering customers to the best solution by determining:

• Why the pet owner is looking to switch recipes, what he/she has been feeding and how the pet is doing on the diet.
• If the pet owner frequently switches recipes or if this is going to be a big change for the pet.
• The age, breed and size of the dog.
• The dog’s activity level.
• What issues the pet owner is trying to address, such as weight, sensitivities, allergies or other health issues, like frequent urinary tract infections.
• If the dog is a picky eater or has specific flavor preferences.

“Also, if this was the result of a vet recommendation, investigate the specifics such as required nutrient levels, ingredients to avoid, protein types and so on,” advises Adolphe.

In this effort, independent retailers will likely have the upper hand over their mass-merchant competitors.

“Pet specialty retailers have always done an outstanding job of personally getting to know their pet parents and their pets,” says Rasmussen. “They know how important it is to develop those relationships and to understand how the customer’s current diet of choice is working for the pet, and issues that exist, and how to best provide a solution, if needed.”  PB


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