Grain-Free Dog Food and Treats

Grain-free dog products continue their growth; but to keep the momentum going, pet specialty retailers must get actively involved by responding to customer concerns and helping them select the best options.


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Grain-free dog foods and treats may have stepped into the mainstream, propelled by consumers increasingly aware of and drawn to these products, but this doesn't mean there still aren't a lot of pet owner misperceptions around the category that pet specialty retailers should be prepared to address. One of the biggest—and likely most irksome for many manufacturers—is that the designation of “grain-free” automatically implies high-quality.

 

“Pet Food manufacturers can all get to the same guaranteed analysis by using vastly different ingredients, ingredient qualities and ingredient sources,” says Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo Pet Food. “Most customers would be surprised to learn how many pet food companies can derive a significant source of their protein content from plant-based matter.”

 

Located in Austin, Texas, Nulo produces grain-free foods containing high protein, low-carb and low-glycemic ingredients, says Acuff. The company offers an exclusive pet food line for dogs and cats to independent pet retailers called Nulo FreeStyle. Available in a variety of recipes like salmon, lamb and turkey, there are also special formulas for puppies, seniors and kittens, and even a “trim” product for dogs and cats. Nulo FreeStyle also contains a patented probiotic for digestive health.

 

This brings to mind another common misunderstanding: equating grain-free to low-carb, says Lindsay Tracy, director of new business and product development for RedBarn Pet Products. Headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., the company makes premium treats, chews and foods for dogs and cats, with a product line of more than 200 items. One offering is the Redbarn Naturals Protein Puffs, a low-fat, high-protein treat containing amino acids to help support muscle development. The Protein Puffs for dogs are composed of 75 percent protein and less than one calorie per treat. They can be used as a treat, a training treat or a food topper.

 

As Tracy explains, although many grain-free products can also be low-carb, this isn’t always the case, making it “imperative” that pet owners read labels and check ingredients to see what has replaced the grains in the formula. Ingredients like potatoes—which she describes as a common grain-free replacement—are higher in starch than the grains they’ve replaced.

 

“On the other hand, pea protein is a great source of lysine and iron, which helps support a healthy immune system and muscle growth,” says Tracy. “It also contains essential amino acids dogs need but are otherwise missing from common meat-based proteins. When not used as a protein replacement but as a grain alternative, pea protein can serve as a healthy grain substitute.”

 

Dog owners should note if animal-based protein is the first ingredient or if carbohydrates or grains show up towards the top of the list, Tracy advises.

 

Brad Gruber, president and COO of Health Extension Pet Care, a Deer Park, N.Y., provider of GMO-free dry and canned pet foods for dogs and cats, among other products, agrees the confusion between grain-free and low-carb is fairly typical.

 

“Vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peas and also tapioca often replace the grain in grain-free foods, especially in kibble, making them higher in carbohydrates than grain-based foods,” he says. “But all in all, vegetables are healthy for a pet and should make up a good part of their diet.”

 

The company recently extended its canned dog food recipes, adding geographically inspired cans, such as the Italian Feast Venison Recipe with Beef and Pork, Tuscan Style Quail Recipe with Chicken and Pork Liver, and Northern Catch with Herring and White Fish. All contain ingredients like coconut oil, pumpkin, fresh veggies and berries, among others.

 

Then there’s the issue of cost and the mistaken idea that it’s possible to remove grains, creating high-meat product, and have pricing close to products that are not similarly formulated, says Glenn Novotny, president and CEO of Emerald Pet Products. Located in Walnut Creek, Calif., the company offers a full range of all-natural dog treats and chews, along with other items. One of the company’s most popular products is Twizzies dog chews, an alternative to rawhide chews. Available in four recipes—Piggy, Turducky, Chicky and Peanutty—the high-protein chews contain over 90 percent meat.

 

“This isn’t possible to do without higher costs,” he explains. “The consumer wants super-premium products, but they’re not always willing to pay the prices associated with the premium ingredient decks—which is why it’s important to offer several levels of price points in order to fit most budgets.”

 

Activity and Issues

The demand for grain-free foods has yet to level out. Instead, sales in this segment are ascending at a “rapid rate,” says Novotny.

 

“With the recent move of some major pet specialty brands into the grocery and mass stores, we are seeing more awareness in this category in all levels of consumers,” he says. “The treat category is poised to grow in the healthy segment as consumers continue to educate themselves.”

 

According to figures provided by Gruber, last year grain-free pet foods generated over $3 billion in sales through the pet specialty channel, a lift of about 10 percent over the previous year. He predicts sales will continue to climb as dogs are living longer and owners remain enthusiastic about grain-free products. There’s also the “pet parenting boom” to consider, he adds. Juiced by baby boomers and millennials, these demographics represent the two biggest groups for pet ownership, and they typically treat their fur babies exceedingly well.

 

“It’s the deep emotional connection between pet parents and their pets that is going to continue driving through categories in an upward spiral trend,” Gruber predicts. “Very simply, these pet owners are going to keep spending on their pet’s food in the same way they do with their children.”

 

However, although Acuff expects demand for grain-free foods to continue their upwards trajectory, she feels this will be at a much slower pace than some grain-free subsets like limited ingredient diets, kibbles with inclusions and ancestral formulas.

 

“Category growth continues to be fueled by changing customer tastes towards even more specific grain-free varieties like single protein, high levels of animal-based protein, poultry- and potato-free, among others,” she says. “Not only is there room for growth in the grain-free category, it still appears to be the ‘table stakes’ for new product entry into the specialty pet.”

 

However, the ongoing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation into the possible link between certain grain-free foods and canine dilated cardiomyopathy may impact this category’s momentum. As of now, the focus seems centered around foods containing peas, lentils, legume seeds or potatoes as a main/primary ingredient, says Sharon Durham, marketing communications manager for ZIWI USA Inc. The global manufacturer of high-meat, small-batch, air-dried ethically managed, free-range foods has its U.S. headquarters in Overland Park, Kan. In addition to the air-dried meat and seafood products—available under the flagship brand, Ziwi Peak Air-Dried—the company also offers canned foods for dogs and cats, as well as air-dried treats and oral health chews for dogs. The diets are based on the carnivore whole-prey model.

 

This has caused many pet owners a significant amount of concern when it comes to foods labeled as grain-free, says Durham. Dr. Bob Goldstein, co-founder and product developer of Earth Animal Ventures, agrees.

 

Located in Southport, Conn., Earth Animal manufactures treats, dog and cat food, supplements and natural remedies, in addition to other items, says Goldstein, who is also a veterinarian. One of their grain-free foods is Dr. Bob’s Wisdom Dog Food, a dehydrated formula available in turkey and chicken versions. Next year the company plans to introduce beef, fish and possibly venison flavors. The high-meat formulas also include ingredients like organic fruits and veggies, seeds, sprouts and beans.

 

As Goldstein explains it, a grain-free product that is primarily plant-based is likely very high in starch. More problematic is the fact that such a product is likely deficient in taurine, an essential amino acid that is primarily obtained through meat, rather than plant protein, though he notes that some plants, such as algae, do contain taurine. A taurine deficiency could lead to heart disease in predisposed dogs.

 

Goldstein says this investigation has resulted in hundreds of calls a week from pet owners to his retail store, Earth Animals, and his practice asking about alternatives to grain-free and how they can protect their dogs.

 

As a veterinarian, he’s advising to stay calm, since the investigation is ongoing. Still, as a safeguard, depending on the ingredient panel, he’s also recommending adding taurine to the dog’s diet if feeding a grain-free diet.

 

Providing an Assist

The FDA investigation illustrates a point made by Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Tuffy’s Pet Foods — whether human or pet, foods are never static; there are new things that come up all the time. The Perham, Minn.-based company produces dry kibble for dogs and cats, as well as semi-moist treats. One of its grain-free items is NutriSource Heartland Select, incorporating real bison as the No. 1 ingredient. The product is also fortified with vitamins and minerals, and includes Tuffy’s Good4Life pack from Alltech, formulated to support brain function, gut health and more.

 

“So, the learning for grain-free is an ongoing process,” says Schmitz. “Pet owners should be comfortable with the company that is producing their food and not be afraid to rotate their feeding, knowing that the food is from a responsible manufacturer.”

 

Given the concerns, it’s more important than ever that pet specialty retailers educate their customers about the differences between meat-based, grain-free products and those that are plant-based, and are able to explain why the differences are important to the dog’s health, says Durham.

 

“Cats must have meat to live,” she says. “But dogs have evolved to the point where they can survive on grain- and plant-based diets. But in order to truly thrive, they also need meat. Only animal-derived protein contains all 10 essential amino acids needed by dogs and cats. One such essential amino acid found only in animal-based foods is taurine. Muscle meat, organ meat, poultry and seafood are all sources of taurine.”

 

Consequently, establishing a dialogue with customers is essential, as is learning about any problems or issues the pet may be experiencing and its health history, says Schmitz.

 

If you’re wondering what to ask, Durham suggests inquiring about any pre-existing health issues that might contraindicate a particular diet. Does the dog have any skin/coat issues, digestive problems or difficulty maintaining a healthy weight? Tracy advises asking about what protein the dog is currently eating and the pet’s activity level.

 

“The family’s lifestyle is also helpful in determining the best options,” says Durham. “For example, someone who travels with or boards their pet in a kennel a great deal may not be able to commit to a raw or frozen diet, but might consider a raw alternative.”

 

The pet owner’s budget constraints are another consideration, she adds. However, these concerns may be lessened if retailers are able to discuss each brand’s actual daily cost to feed. It’s also helpful for retailers to be able to explain “there are affordable ways—even on a budget—to improve the pet’s diet,” she says.

 

Also query as to why the pet owner is looking for grain-free products, says Gruber. Is it because they want the dog’s diet to mirror their own, or that they’ve heard that feeding grain-free is simply better? If it’s driven by the desire to improve the pet’s health, then hone in on the concerns by asking the relevant questions to get to the root cause of the problem, he says.

 

As for merchandising food in a way that makes it easier for customers to find what they need, Gruber suggests separating the category, for example, creating sections like grain-free, functional, specialty and so on, identifying each with easy-to-spot signage. Pet specialty retailers also need to step outside of their stores and check out the competition, he adds.

 

“And not just in our industry, but in others as well,” Gruber says. “How are specialty/natural food grocers merchandising similar human food products and what are high-end specialty clothing stores doing to make it easier for their customers to shop and to make the experience an exciting and profitable one?”

 

One strategy he has noticed many of these retailers deploying is the “store within a store” concept, which Gruber feels would translate well to pet specialty stores.

 

It’s also wise to take an encompassing perspective when it comes to making product recommendations.

 

“The grain-free category remains strong and is also where a lot of growth is, but understand that whole-grain products are not a bad option either,” says Schmitz. “Grain-free foods can really be a benefit for pets with issues such as allergies or digestive problems. [But] every food has a purpose and good pet specialty retailers need to educate pet parents about this.” PB

 

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