Tips for Choosing Pet Food
Pets are considered members of the family, and owners want to provide them with the proper nutrition. With so many options available and trends taking off, it can be hard to keep up and sift through them.
Walking into the food aisle of a pet store can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned pet owners. It seems that hundreds of products are on display, with labels and certifications such as “grain-free,” “organic,” “all natural” and “human-grade” appearing to jump out from every shelf. Given the sheer amount of cat and dog breeds, it’s beneficial that there are so many choices. However, variety doesn’t always mean viability.
Labels can’t be taken at face value—they must be compared against the ingredient panel in order to validate their claims. Sure, that bag of dry food says it’s “protein-rich,” but what kind of protein is it? Where is it coming from?
“In the premium pet food space, grain-free, protein-rich and natural ingredients are all important, but those attributes don’t give pet parents the whole picture,” says Heather Acuff, product development and customer care manager for Nulo Pet Foods. “Simply replacing grains with high-glycemic starch isolates or including high levels of plant-protein concentrates takes pets even further away from how they are designed to eat.”
The Austin, Texas-based company formulates its recipes based on the carnivorous, natural diets of cats and dogs. Nulo’s formulas deliver large amounts of animal-based proteins—up to 85 percent in some kibble recipes.
Although reading and understanding labels and ingredient panels is essential, Westport, Conn.-based Earth Animal encourages consumers to go one step further and research all aspects of a company.
Dr. Bob Goldstein, DVM, founder of Earth Animal, and Ryan Yamka, chief scientific officer, create their foods so animal can “not just survive, but thrive.” They want buyers to be aware of who formulated the food. Was it veterinarians or PhD nutritionists? Did the company conduct digestibility studies?
“Our food is designed on decades of research with our supplements, daily health nuggets and years in veterinary practice,” they say. “We could have launched the food years ago; however, we have taken the time to perfect our formulas and small batch processes to make sure we deliver the most optimal nutrition to the animal.”
The essential components for pet food nutrition exist outside of the latest industry trends, explains Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Pet Foods. The Mequon, Wis.-based company uses nutritionally complete recipes with all the vitamins and nutrients cats and dogs need for optimal nutrition.
“We focus on quality ingredients and meticulous processing,” says Nieman. “It allows us to embrace variety, diversity and creativity with our recipes without sacrificing the quality of our premium diets.”
Auburn, Ky.-based Champion Pet Foods uses a WholePrey formulation, which includes a variety of proteins in many forms, including organs, cartilage, whole fish, fresh eggs and produce.
“Dogs and cats are biologically built to eat food high in meat protein, as their ancestors did,” explains Julie Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion. “We believe that the quality of meat is just as important as the quantity, which is why ⅓ of the meat in ACANA and ⅔ of the meat in ORIJEN is fresh or raw.”
Tuffy’s Pet Foods, based in Perham, Minn., follows strict guidelines when developing new formulas or updating existing ones, “religiously” adhering to AAFCO standards with a focus on meat, says Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Tuffy’s.
“We use meat inclusion formulas and avoid the ‘taboo’ ingredients, such as corn, wheat and soy. All of our formulas include vitamins and minerals. The utmost in pet nutrition is our number one goal,” Schmitz says.
Human nutrition trends seem to have a symbiotic relationship with those in the pet food industry. As consumers become more concerned about where their food is sourced and how it’s created, it’s naturally translating into the same awareness for their pets.
“I think the biggest reason for this elevated awareness of products in our industry is how these pet parents view their own nutritional values. Humanization of pets has never been stronger, and the lifestyles people lead for themselves carry over to how they care for their pets,” Schmitz explains.
Washington believes that millennials, in particular, are influencing the pet food market as they increasingly treat their pets like children.
“This generation has grown up believing that higher quality food is connected to better health and nutrition. Their pets are like family, and they want to feed them better quality, nutrient-dense foods,” she says.
As the awareness of healthy, nutritious pet products increases, it’s up to retailers to do their research and pick which companies they want to represent in their stores. Retailers should be knowledgeable about all the brands they carry and be able to answer any questions customers may have about certain companies, including each company’s practices and ingredients. For their part, companies should be transparent about what ingredients are being used, how they’re being used and where they come from.
Earth Animal utilizes clear windows on its packaging so buyers can actually see what they’re purchasing. The packaging also explains what its product delivers, how it sources its material, where the products are made, what organizations it supports and briefly outlines its sustainability programs.
“When we say we add blueberries, cranberries and other fruits and vegetables, you will see them. When we say our product is 70 percent meat, we mean that on a dry weight,” Dr. Goldstein and Yamka explain. “You will see a difference in coat quality, activity and even simple things, like smaller stool volume given our high digestibility.”
More Than Money
While some people may see happier, healthier pets, others may simply see higher price tags. For those concerned, Nieman emphasizes that retailers should be able to work with customers to find a suitable option around their budget. Those few extra dollars will pay off when pet parents start seeing their pets living longer, happier and healthier lives. It comes down to understanding the bigger picture and realizing that a premium pet food brand is an investment into a pet’s future.
“The cost of food becomes inconsequential compared to the peace of mind gained from knowing that what you’re providing to your pet really is the best thing for them in the long-term,” says Acuff. “For Nulo, it’s about more than premium nutrition. It’s a way to show them love, to improve their quality of life and the ultimate goal of helping them live long and happy lives with us.”
It’s also important to be aware of the cost per serving. Although economy brands may be cheaper at the register, the frequency in which they are being bought can end up being more expensive in the long run. The options that premium brands offer tend to be higher in nutrients and density, allowing less food to be served at mealtime without sacrificing flavor, satiety and nutrition.
“The dog or cat never buys the first bag of food,” Schmitz explains. “But, if the food works, they buy the remainder.” PB