What's in a Word?

How we define natural pet food is ever changing, but its popularity and importance to your store is here to stay.




In the pet food landscape, the word natural can mean a lot of different things. It can refer to the type of ingredients, the quality of the ingredients, the way the ingredients are grown, found, processed and much more. Nearly every pet food manufacturer now offers a natural option or two, and as the category has gained a heightened awareness among pet owners, the way it plays out on the shelves has changed as well. 

“The natural category for pet food started out with a very simple objective: to produce foods with ingredients that were recognizable and pronounceable to the consumer,” says Heather Acuff, customer care and product development manager at Nulo Pet Food of Austin, Texas. 

But now the category means much more than ingredients a pet parent can understand. “Natural took on more of a representation of ingredients that were appropriate for cats and dogs in a wild environment,” she says.

Natural also often implies the absence of artificial colors, preservatives, flavorings, grains and soy, plus an emphasis on animal-based proteins. 

“Today, the natural landscape is evolving into a representation of ingredient quality,” she says. That can mean minimally processed ingredients, raw ingredients or human-grade ingredients.

Pet parents are also increasingly looking to feed their pets more familiar foods, dishes made up of ingredients that they would eat, too. 

“Human food trends have a strong influence on [the natural category’s] development,” says Chris Meiering, director of innovation at Zuke’s in Durango, Colo. “As consumers become more aware of food labels and ingredient lists in their own foods, they apply that same awareness to their pet’s food.”  Zuke’s Ascent Natural Dog Food combines meat, fish or poultry with quick-dried vegetables and fruits like blueberries, peas, cranberries or carrots. 

Because of the natural category’s popularity and its continual development, there can be confusion about what exactly defines natural. Every manufacturer has its own unique take on the term and its implications. 

“Almost every company seems to offer a natural food, but each company seems to have a different meaning of what natural is,” says Lonnie Schwimmer, cofounder of Nootie’s KOHA Super Premium Pet Food in Delray Beach, Fla. “So, it’s becoming diluted.” 

To the folks at Redbarn Pet Products, natural means using minimal ingredients and processing, plus no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, according to Rashell Cooper, marketing director. “Making natural products has been a Redbarn priority since the company’s beginnings,” she says. 

According to Meiering, natural food “works to deliver the nutrients dogs need from protein, vegetables and fruits without things like artificial preservatives and by-products that diminish their nutritional value.”

To those at Nulo, natural means “aligning the food with the nutrition required for carnivores like dogs and cats, and that the ingredients are high-quality sources from reputable suppliers,” says Acuff. “This means that most of the protein in a dog or cat’s diet should be coming from meat, poultry and fish, rather than plants; that carbs should be kept at minimal levels; and that unnecessary ingredients should never be used.”

All of Nulo’s foods are made from 80 to 85 percent animal-based protein. They have low carbohydrate levels from ingredients like chickpeas, lentils and sweet potatoes. 

All in all, there is a general consensus about the key terms and phrases that one can expect from natural labeling, but there still isn’t a set standard one will always see and experience. Manufacturers and retailers could debate back and forth all day about the true meaning of “natural,” but what really matters is what pet parents—your customers—want.

“Today’s consumers are demanding the following trends in their pet’s food: made in the USA, natural and grain free,” says Cooper. “When pet owners spot these trends, they respond positively.” Redbarn offers Grain-Free Canned Dog Foods that are free of grain, soy and corn, are made in the USA and feature proteins like trout, duck and quail. 

Acuff points to three core values that she sees from consumers who seek natural food: nutrition, safety and transparency.

“Natural ingredients are generally credited with being minimally processed, which in turn provides greater nutritional potency for their pets,” she says. “[Customers] are searching for a company that they can trust with an excellent safety track record and a robust quality assurance system in place for manufacturing. Increasingly, they’re also looking for a deeper transparency of ingredient sourcing, including where ingredients come from, how they were raised or farmed and whether they are sustainably harvested.” 

Natural food doesn’t stop there. There are plenty of innovations on the horizon—or already in stores—within the category. Schwimmer points to alternative ways of feeding pets, like prepared foods and dehydrated products. Manufacturers are also experimenting with more exotic protein sources, such as Nootie’s KOHA Kangaroo stews, pates and entrees, which are ideal for pets with food sensitivities. 

Acuff says pet owners will start to care more about being environmentally conscious when thinking about natural food options.

“Ingredient sourcing transparency and sustainability is increasingly important in the pet food space,” she says. “People who seek out a natural food do so with the intention of providing a better nutritional option for their family members, and this sense of responsibility extends to the way the ingredients are raised or grown, and the impact to the environment their food choices have.”

But all this talk about natural food selections is worthless if retailers don’t have the knowledge and the tools to sell the products. A trend doesn’t just sell itself, and retailers need to adjust their selling and display practices to better suit a sale. 

“Merchandising best practices include featuring the proper display of natural dog and cat food with accompanying educational material and using sections of your store to highlight different diet types,” says Cooper. “Using an endcap, featuring natural diets as a product of the month and moving natural diets to the front of the store all work to aid pet specialty retailers.”

A store’s employee comprehension of the natural category is just as important as that of a storeowner or manager. Employees should be equipped with the tools to answer customers’ questions and have a series of questions on deck for when someone comes in looking for a natural food option.

“Give associates questions to ask like, ‘Does your pet have any food allergies or sensitivities? What is your biggest concern about your pet’s health? Do they have a favorite protein?,” says Cooper. “This personalization will help retailers better tailor their suggestions to the individual pet and provide a curated experience.”

Meiering has similar feelings, noting that it’s a retailer’s job to make sure pet parents are making the best decisions for their pet’s health.

“We encourage [retailers] to have an open dialogue with their customers to help them understand that not all dog food is created equal,” he says. 


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