Proteins Pack a Punch
Diets featuring novel proteins and superfood ingredients top the charts in food trends this year.
Across the board, industry participants report increased consumer awareness about the ingredients used in their pets’ diets. Demand for novel proteins, such as wild boar and pork, and superfoods, such as peas and pumpkin, in canine diets continues to grow, with industry insiders citing pet allergies and trends in human foods as leading reasons for the push.
“Overall nutrition and superfoods are more of a priority for customers,” said Crystal Nelson, manager or Ruff Haus Pets in Chicago. “Customers have begun to examine what is actually going into their canine companion’s food and how they perform on specific diets.”
Jen Loesch, general manager for Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn., agreed.
“Concerned pet parents are hyper-focused on nutrition as the key to whole body health and longevity, with pet parents looking for safe, convenient ways to feed their pets the freshest ingredients possible,” she said, adding that the popularity of foods made with exotic proteins stems from a desire to add both variety and nutrients to pets’ meals.
“Obviously, the demand for exotic proteins is growing,” Loesch said. “And beyond the novelty and wilderness imagery, more and more pet parents are discovering the unique nutritional attributes.”
Sales of diets that are void of traditional fare such as chicken and beef are up at Loyal Biscuit Co., which has stores in Maine. Co-owner Heidi Neal pointed to a few reasons for the increase.
“One, I feel that more and more dogs and cats are becoming sensitive to common proteins, so pet parents are looking for alternatives that work better for their pets,” she said. “Two, humans in general are much more aware of novel proteins and superfoods in their own diets, and that always translates over to what their pets are eating.”
Nancy Stewart, manager and buyer at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz., also attributed allergies as the reason why dog owners seek out diets with novel proteins.
“Probably the greatest motivator for customers wanting novel proteins is the widespread skin conditions being seen on dogs and the assumption that these are because of one of the primary ingredients in the food the animal is consuming,” she said, adding that “novel proteins are not new, they are just changing. Years ago, lamb was a novel protein, so the bar just keeps changing.”
Allergies are not the only reason for the current popularity of novel proteins, according to Heather Hickey, vice president of sales—North America for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan.
“More consumers are rotating proteins, even without allergies, to expose their pets to different proteins and nutrients,” she said.
The growth of superfoods in human health is crossing over into pet, Hickey said, “because they are family members, not just pets.” She also reported green-lipped mussels and kelp as popular ingredients.
Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, said pumpkin is “the ‘hot’ superfood of the moment, [as it provides] multiple nutritional benefits including antioxidants, beta-carotene and dietary fiber, plus [palatability].”
Pork, Fish Among Newest Novel Proteins in Diets
One demographic segment in particular is helping to drive new offerings in this segment of dog food, said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
“Millennials are really driving [this] category with their continued desire for premium-quality ingredients that are also sustainably sourced,” she said. “With more interest in novel proteins and superfoods comes more opportunity to research and develop new recipes with ingredients that weren’t very common a few years ago.”
In response, Petcurean introduced Now Fresh Pork Stew in October 2017. Formulated to be served as a treat, a topper or a complete and balanced meal, the stew is made with 100 percent fresh pork, which is a novel protein not commonly found in dog food, Immega said.
“Our Now Fresh Pork Stew has zero genetically engineered ingredients and is available in industry-leading recyclable and reclosable Tetra Pak cartons,” she added. “The recipe features nutrient-rich turkey bone broth and the following superfoods: peas, cranberries and sweet potatoes.”
In November, the company debuted Go! Sensitivity + Shine Limited Ingredient Alaskan Pollock. This diet is free of grain, gluten and potato, features fresh meat and meal as the first two ingredients, is low in carbohydrates, cholesterol and fat, and contains coconut oil, tapioca and chicory root, Immega said.
Last month at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn., unveiled its reformulated Sojos Wild. The grain-free line features three novel proteins: Free-Range Venison, Wild Boar and Wild-Caught Salmon.
The raw, shelf-stable dog foods are made with select USDA-inspected proteins as the No. 1 ingredient and contain human-grade superfood fruits and veggies, said Jen Loesch, general manager.
Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan., is planning to expand its canned selection soon.
“Our canned diets are high meat—at 92 to 93 percent meat—and 100 percent gum free,” said Heather Hickey, vice president of sales—North America. She added that the meats are sourced in New Zealand, and the company adds a small percentage of chickpea to thicken the food without adding bulk to the can.
Savvy Stores Spotlight Education
Most pet specialty stores that excel in selling diets featuring novel ingredients and/or superfoods place high importance on educating staff to then pass that knowledge on to customers, industry participants agreed.
“We know the holistic pet food world can be an overwhelming place at times, and that’s why we believe customer education at the store level is most important,” said Crystal Nelson, manager or Ruff Haus Pets in Chicago. “Customer education begins with our staff, and our training is an ongoing process.”
Jen Loesch, general manager for Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn., agreed that “it’s essential for pet specialty retailers to ensure their team members are well versed on the brands they carry, as well as the ins and outs of feeding freeze-dried, raw food, novel-protein diets and the benefits of particular ingredients,” she said. “Properly trained, knowledgeable sales associates can quickly break down perceived barriers.”
Heidi Neal, co-owner of Loyal Biscuit Co., which has stores in Maine, added that not all customers know they need the education.
“Some people don’t even realize they are looking for it,” she said. “They just know that what they are currently using isn’t working.”
The No. 1 way to educate customers is by having conversations with them, manufacturers and retailers agreed.
“Individual consultation is the best educational tool, so we always try to have enough staff in the store to allow for these conversations when the need arises,” said Nancy Stewart, manager and buyer at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz.
Really listening to what customers say is also important, Nelson said.
“Always listen to your customers, as every canine and feline is unique and different,” she said. “Forming a relationship based on trust and educated recommendations are important steps to educating customers. Once you have formed that foundation, you are able to have an open and ongoing discussion with your customers.”
Several insiders recommended using social media.
“Social media is an easy and effective way for retailers to reach their customer base directly to pique their interest about new and exciting products,” said Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. “The educational approach is often overlooked as being too dry for social media, but that doesn’t have to be the case. A great way to add a little excitement is to include a giveaway with an engagement driver, such as a dog photo contest with a high-value prize attached.”
Partnering with vendors also fuels staff and customer education about these foods, insiders said.
“Another great option to educate both staff and consumers would be to build strong relationships with manufacturers and distributors,” Nelson said. “We recommend setting up staff training, in-store demos, and promotions with your vendors and sales reps.”
While insiders agreed that there are premium, value and mid-tier options for customers seeking diets with novel proteins and/or superfood ingredients, several sources said the products at the lower end of the spectrum often contain lower-quality ingredients.
“Most unique proteins fall into the premium category,” said Nancy Stewart, manager and buyer at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz. “I don’t believe there is a way to have value-priced unique protein/superfood diets and keep the quality.”
That said, Stewart reported that “most animals needing these diets are compromised in some form, and their owners, if dedicated to their health and quality of life, need top-quality products and are willing to pay for them.”
Crystal Nelson, manager for Ruff Haus Pets in Chicago, has had similar experiences with her customers.
“Consumers are looking for value when considering a pet food, and that value extends beyond pricing,” she said. “Customers are looking for a diet that will ensure the longevity of their animal companions’ lives, and that is priceless.”
Some price variances stem from ingredient availability, said Heather Hickey, vice president of sales—North America for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan.
“When you look at novel proteins like venison, there’s a shortage this year, so consumers will see around a 40 percent increase in prices or a reduced amount of venison in diets due to the shortage,” she said. “Other novel proteins that are easy to source, such as lamb, mackerel and tripe, [have a smaller price tag]. There are still a lot of unique products out there that are not super expensive.”
Not everyone experiences sticker shock from these premium diets, said Jen Loesch, general manager for Sojos in South St. Paul, Minn.
“There’s often the perceived ultra-premium price tag that goes along with an ultra-premium exotic diet,” she said.