Buying the Natural Story

An increasing number of pet owners are researching and buying natural foods for their four-legged loved ones, and retailers that can keep up with the latest consumer demands are well positioned to profit.


Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the natural pet food category. Consumers are reading about pet nutrition on labels and online, and industry experts say this newly acquired knowledge is driving sales in the natural dog food category.

“The growth is coming from consumers who are becoming more educated about pet food and are exploring new options based on their knowledge,” says Steve Portch, vice president of sales for Austin, Texas-based Nulo Pet Food. “So instead of buying the same product they’ve always been buying out of habit or simply out of brand recognition, a growing percentage is now seeking innovative, healthier options.”

Portch says pet owners are relying on both social media and traditional media to find out about these healthier options. Armed with this new knowledge, they are opting for grain-free foods, such as those found in the Nulo Freestyle product line. The foods are high in meat, low carb, low glycemic, and feature a patented probiotic that survives extrusion. Although these features do not necessarily equate with “natural,” they are attributes that educated consumers seek out. “Not only do they want to know what is in the bag, but they want to know where it’s made, how it’s made, and where the materials are sourced,” he says.

This is an exciting time for the natural category, says Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods. “As pet parents and consumers become more aware of the market and more motivated to deliver a better nutritional option for their pets, natural pet foods, in general, are more in demand,” he says. “The more plugged-in consumer is aware of issues and trends, and actively seeks out what they deem to be the best for their dog or cat.”

What they deem best, Nieman says, is a more premium, natural way to feed their animals. One of the Mequon, Wis.-based company’s newest products is Four Star Lamb & Lentil Recipe, a grain-free, poultry-free, and potato-free dog food inspired by Greek cuisine that features fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Today, excluded ingredients are just as important as those that are included. Pet parents are becoming more knowledgeable about topics such as grain allergies and pet obesity, says Ward Johnson, co-owner and proprietor of Sojos. “They’re reading labels, asking questions and exploring alternative food forms,” he says. “Once they start serving raw, naturally nutritious food, it doesn’t take long to see the difference in their dogs.”

The Minneapolis-based Sojos will soon launch an ultra-premium line of lean, protein-rich foods made with raw freeze-dried meat, and natural fruits and vegetables. The foods contain no grains, GMOs or anything artificial. Johnson says the new food is made for the discriminating pet parent.

“Consumers are stepping up to brands and pet specialty retailers who share their commitment to exceptional nutrition,” he says.
Grain-free is still on-trend for natural dog food consumers, says Dan Schmitz, sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods, a brand of KLN Family Brands. Other traits that appeal to these pet owners are limited-ingredient diets and non-GMO foods. “Humanization of pets has never been stronger, and pet parents are not only looking for the best food around but also a food that resembles their own lifestyle. Holistic, organic, and all natural are examples of our lifestyles and this has passed along to our pets,” he says.

One recent launch from NutriSource, also a KLN brand, is fresh, shelf-stable Salmon Fillet for Dogs. The food can serve as a topper or a complete diet, says Schmitz, and contains a single ingredient—fresh salmon that is rich in omega fatty acids.

Fresh Food for a Fair Price
Fresh produce and fresh meats are important ingredients in natural foods. Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., Inc., in Wheeling, Ill., says she works with vendors to make sure the meats and produce she gets are fresh and high quality. “We are not a human-grade plant, but we buy human-grade fruits and vegetables,” she says. In fact, Sher says that Evanger’s buys sweet potatoes from a vendor that also supplies upscale natural supermarkets.

The newest product for Evanger’s is the semi-moist Hi Bio, which contains 85 percent meat, and no grains. The challenge is not in finding the fresh ingredients, says Sher, but in keeping up with another consumer demand. “What I’m seeing now in trends is everybody wants a top product, but they don’t want to pay more,” she says, adding that Evanger’s is able to keep prices in check because it does its own canning.

Others agree that price is becoming important for natural dog food consumers. “Value natural” is an emerging category in this segment, says Scott Whipple, co-founder of CANIDAE Natural Pet Food Company, based in Norco, Calif. For example, he says that CANIDAE offers the Life Stages line as a high-quality food at a good price. “The growth is being driven by greater socio-economic trends in North America,” he says. “Middle and lower economic classes are looking for healthier foods but are increasingly struggling with their finances.”

But shoppers on a budget also seek limited-ingredient foods for their dogs. Among the ingredients in CANIDAE’s new grain-free formula, PURE, are fresh meat, including exotic proteins such as duck, lamb, trout, salmon, or bison, as well as sweet potatoes, peas and chickpeas. The foods have seven to 10 key ingredients. “Fewer ingredients mean less chance of pets developing food sensitivities, and also make these simple recipes ideal for pets that already experience these sensitivities,” says Whipple.

He adds that it helps that paleo diets and gluten-free diets have become trendy in human nutrition. Consumers pay attention to what they feed their family members, and for many, that includes their pets.

New ingredients such as kelp are making their way into natural dog food. Last year Burbank, Calif.-based Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. launched its revamped line of Dog Food Rolls with four new formulas, featuring premium meats like duck, turkey, chicken and lamb, as well as fruits and vegetables to promote healthy skin and coat. Natural Balance added kelp meal, a natural source of vitamins and minerals. The Dog Food Rolls are formulated without corn, soy, wheat, sodium nitrite, artificial flavors or colors.

The lack of artificial ingredients is generally easy for consumers to understand if they are seeking natural dog food. One challenge, though, is that there has been confusion about the definition of natural, says Ron Jackson, assistant to the president at Hi-Tek Rations in Dublin, Ga. He notes that the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which does not regulate but establishes nutritional standards, defines “natural” according to factors such as the food being derived from plant, animal or mined sources and not having been chemically processed.

“Using that definition, the category of natural foods is hardly a category at all, as it encompasses nearly every premium food on the market,” says Jackson. “Despite the fact that many pet foods are natural by definition, the marketplace tells manufacturers and retailers that consumers prefer natural products over others.”

All Hi-Tek products meet the AAFCO definition of natural, says Jackson, yet the company’s biggest selling products are those with the word “natural” in the name. These include Perfectly Natural Dog, Hi-Tek Naturals and Hi-Tek Naturals Grain Free. Consumers in high-income households are, predictably, more likely to buy natural dog food, and there are some geographical differences too. The company sees greater demand for natural products in metropolitan areas than rural, especially along the East and West Coasts and in specific markets such as Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix,
Chicago, Miami and Atlanta.

Last year, Hi-Tek launched the Leonard Powell Signature Series family of products, which consists of two formulations in each of three categories: exotics, classics and baked. The all-natural products feature fresh meats as the primary protein source. Also, the company recently introduced Hi-
Tek Naturals Puppy Food and is working on several other natural formulations for 2015.

Other trends are helping the category, says Jackson. Consumers continue to be concerned about food quality, safety, palatability and whether the product is manufactured in the USA. “Consumers also have expressed a desire to see pre- and probiotics in their pet food as well as antioxidants, foods rich in omega,” he says.

Consumers also want high-quality proteins in natural dog food. Tampa, Fla.-based Halo, Purely for Pets launched Vigor, which is free of chicken meal, rendered meats or by-product meals. Vigor Dry dog food is available in Pork, Venison and Salmon recipe; and Vigor Canned dog food is available in Salmon and Roasted Venison, and Turkey and Roasted Quail recipes.

Awareness of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, is another consumer demand that is driving sales in the category, says Lucy Postins, founder and CEO of The Honest Kitchen, Inc. The San Diego-based company has begun the verification process for some of its products with the Non-GMO Project. Beams and Wishes all-natural pure fish treats obtained non-GMO verification in December 2014, and Postins says The Honest Kitchen expects to announce more new products this year.

Meanwhile, the use of ancient grains is another consumer trend that appeals to natural dog food shoppers. The Honest Kitchen’s newest products are Halcyon, a duck and ancient grains recipe for dogs, and Hale & Kindly, two base mixes designed to be fed with the customer’s own choice of cooked or raw meat. In the spring, the company plans to launch Revel, a whole-grain chicken recipe, as well as some other natural innovations later in the year.

As more consumers become educated about natural foods, and eat more natural foods in their own diets, pet food manufacturers are responding with innovative products. “Companies continue to raise the bar with their product offerings, which in turn has a further positive effect on the industry as a whole and fuels the creation of new, natural-focused emerging brands,” says Postins.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2013/2014 National Pet Owners Survey, 18 percent of dog owners bought natural dog food, which APPA defines as food with no synthetic material, in 2012. That was up from 13 percent in 2010 and 11 percent in 2008. Also according to the survey, 11 percent of dog owners say natural dog food is the type of food they buy most often. Small dog owners opt for natural food more commonly at 22 percent, compared to 12 percent of medium dog owners and 15 percent of large dog owners.

WellPet, based in Tewksbury, Mass., conducted its own study. In the Wellness Natural Pet Food Pet Parent Poll, 59 percent of respondents said natural ingredients are top of mind when buying food for their pets. “When pet owners see ingredients that they recognize as being healthy in their own diets, like kale and sweet potatoes, that’s something they get excited about,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager, marketing communications. “Pet parents understand that feeding our pets a natural, nutrient-rich diet helps maintain a balanced weight and allows their loved ones to live a longer, happier and more active life.” Among the newest products under the company’s Wellness brand are Wellness CORE Superfood Protein Bars, Wellness Petite Entrees for small breed dogs, Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Diets and Wellness Complete Health Toy Breed.

Schmitz sees a positive future for natural dog food. “All indications suggest it to continue for the next few years at least,” he says. “There will always be factors that influence this and keeping new fresh ideas is extremely important to stay in the game.”

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