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Dog Marketplace: Address Allergies With Grain-Free Diets

Posted: Oct. 17, 2012, 4:55 p.m. EDT


Customers are looking to grain-free foods to help pets with perceived sensitivities to certain ingredients.
By Keith Loria

While almost all grain-free diets are promoted as foods for dogs with allergies, that’s actually just one of the reasons pet owners seek out these products. There is also a heightened interest in the benefits of foods with unique ingredients.

“A key trend impacting the industry is the increasing incidence and awareness of pets with food sensitivities or allergies and consumer demand for over-the-counter alternatives to prescription diets,” said Jerel Kwek, CEO of Addiction Foods, which has its North American headquarters in Kent, Wash. “Grain-free is just expected today, and people are really concerned about the source of the ingredients. In our case, we only use free-range animals.”

Grain free dog food
Customers are especially interested in grain-free options with novel proteins. Katie Ingmire/BowTie Inc.
Interest in this category has continued to grow, influenced in part by ads and promotions for an increasing number of grain-free or hypoallergenic products available for human consumption. Another factor is stepped-up advertising from major brands of dog diets and treats, retailers and manufacturers reported.

“According to published research, the trend started in 2007 and has been growing ever since,” said Rob Cadenhead, vice president of sales at Spring Naturals, a brand of Performance Pet Products in Mitchell, S.D. “The grain-free share of pet specialty channel sales has been rising steadily, from under 1 percent five years ago to approximately 5 percent at present. We believe the category will continue to increase in size as more consumers become aware of the benefits of feeding grain-free dinners and treats to their dogs.”

To that end, Spring Naturals recently introduced a full line of no-compromise products in the grain-free category, including kibble dinners, canned dinners and treats.

“We formulate all of them with real meat, poultry or fish as the first ingredient, followed by a generous helping of whole fruits and whole vegetables,” Cadenhead said.

New Foods: What’s Inside
The latest offerings from Halo, Purely for Pets include Spot’s Stew Dry Dog Grain-Free Surf n’ Turf, made with real ocean whitefish, turkey and duck, as well as Spot’s Choice, a new line of canned dog food in shredded turkey or chicken with chickpeas formulas, according to the company.

“Customers are looking for variety in products they trust and they asked for grain-free formulas,” reported Bettie Hamilton, director of product development for the Tampa, Fla., company. “By adding grain-free diets to the dog dry line, Halo now offers…a natural grain-free feeding choice.”

Grain-free pet food
Endcaps are a great way to attract attention to new grain-free offerings. Photo by Norah Levine/Courtesy of Tomlinson’s.
Fromm Family Foods introduced its two latest grain-free recipes to its dog food line in 2012 as part of its Four-Star Nutritionals line of foods: Salmon Tunalini, made with a blend of wild salmon, tuna, Mediterranean vegetables and olive oil, and Game Bird, featuring a blend of duck, turkey, quail and pheasant together with hand-selected fruit and vegetables, according to the manufacturer.

“There has been an increase in demand for grain-free entrees, and these two new recipes have quickly become a fan favorite with customers feeding grain-free for a specific health reason, as well as families looking for new recipes to serve their pets,” noted Tom Nieman, owner of the Mequon, Wis., company. “Grain-free has grown dramatically in popularity among the premium or superpremium sector in the last few years and continues to be in growing demand from customers.”

Annamaet Petfoods first introduced three grain-free dog foods in 2010: a poultry formula, Salcha, made with low ash, chicken, turkey and duck; a fish formula, Aqualuk, made with low ash, wild-caught salmon and herring; and a red meat formula, Manitok, made with low ash, free-range lamb, buffalo and venison, according to the company.

“In April of 2012 we introduced Annamaet Grain Free Lean as our concern was that so many dogs were overweight,” said Robert L. Downey, president of the Sellersville, Pa., manufacturer. “Obesity is the No. 1 health problem in dogs today and mimics the trends in humans. At Annamaet we feel there needs to be a feeding option and plan for those dogs prone to being overweight.”

This spring, Wellness, from WellPet LLC in Tewksbury, Mass., announced the biggest product launch in its history—adding 49 new SKUs to its already extensive product line, most of them designed especially for pets with food allergies or sensitivities. 

“Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Diet, formerly Simple Food Solutions, recently was reformulated to meet the growing need for hypoallergenic and grain-free diets,” said Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior communications manager. “Each of the recipes is carefully crafted to deliver a single source of protein and easily digestible carbohydrates.”

The line includes four recipes: Simple Duck & Oatmeal Formula, Simple Grain-Free Salmon & Potato Formula, Simple Grain-Free Turkey & Potato Formula and Simple Lamb & Oatmeal Formula.  

Buzzworthy Trend
Manufacturers and retailers are seeing a tremendous spike in the number of people seeking grain-free products—both for allergy control and for proper health.

“While we were in the early stages of developing the Spring Naturals wholesome grain line, we knew we wanted to provide a healthy alternative for pet owners who believe their dogs have grain allergies or digestive sensitivities caused by common grains,” Performance Pet Products’ Cadenhead said. “We were also responding to increasing demands for grain-free items from our independent retailer and distributor network, a trend that has been increasing in recent years.”

Grain-Free Diets: Vet Nutritionists Weigh In
By Dr. Lou Anne Epperley, DVM

Four board-certified veterinary nutritionists we consulted agreed:

• Corn, wheat and soy usually are innocent when accused of causing food allergies.

• Clients, not veterinarians, often diagnose food allergies.
• There’s a big difference between a true food allergy, which is rare, and a food intolerance.

Vilification of food grains as pet food ingredients might be myths, according to four diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN).

“I honestly don’t know where that got started,” said Dr. Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, Dipl. ACVN. “It’s not based on any data, and there are excellent diets that contain one or more of those items.” 

Others agreed that there’s little data to back up the case against corn.

“Corn is not an inherently good or bad food for dogs and cats, and there have been very few corn allergies in dogs and cats in this country,” said Dr. Lisa Weeth, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, a clinical nutritionist for Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J. “But corn is used frequently as an ingredient in lower-cost pet foods, so the boutique pet food companies are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the bigger, more established competition.”

Food allergy is an abnormal immune response only to a protein, not to a fat or a carbohydrate, said Dr. Rebecca L. Remillard, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, of the North Carolina State University Nutrition Service.

An animal is more likely to have an allergy to something it repeatedly is exposed to, added Dr. Jennifer Larsen, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN.

Corn is 8 percent protein and 80 percent starch, and rice has less than 10 percent protein, Remillard said.
 
“If an animal is allergic to protein, it’s like a bee sting; any amount will trigger a reaction,” she said. “The problem for vets is, you can have a food intolerance case in front of you, and the vomiting and diarrhea look the same.

“True incidents of food allergy are about 10 percent of the animal population,” Remillard continued. “Most ‘people’ cases of food allergic reaction are thought to actually be food intolerance.”

Weeth agreed, saying that a food allergy is an antigen-antibody reaction to a protein component in a diet.

“It could be the protein in beef and corn, just as well as the protein in venison and quinoa,” she said. “It depends on what the animal has been exposed to in the past, and what its immune system reacts to. A food intolerance doesn’t have an antigenic component, and can occur in dogs and cats with poor digestibility of an ingredient or combination of ingredients, or how the food is prepared.”

Retailers, in particular, have noticed more people asking about the grain-free foods and being more informed overall about dog allergies and other pet diseases.

“It seems our customers are always a step ahead of us,” noted Diana Greiner, co-owner of Felix & Oscar, a pet food store in Springfield, Va. “It used to be that when we were talking about allergy-type foods, we were talking about limited ingredients and grain-free diets. Now people are looking for not only exotic proteins but also potato-free products.”

At Theresa’s Country Feed & Pet in Simi Valley, Calif., general manager Steve Shalhoob has seen similar requests.

“Since the introduction of ‘grain free’ and the mass marketing campaigns by nearly every major brand, we’ve noticed an influx of customers coming into the store with the intentions of changing their pets’ diets to a grain-free product,” Shalhoob said. “Depending on who they talked to or what they’ve read, the reasons for switching diets are all over the board—not just about allergies.”

Creating Awareness
In retail, communication is paramount, and having a conversation with a customer—both in and out of the store—can help them see the benefits of higher quality foods and grain-free varieties.

“We work very hard to make sure we are well-informed about the products we sell,” said Alan Ronay, owner of Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery in St. Pete Beach, Fla. “When we sell food for pets, we get to know the customers and their pets so as to suggest the best food for [each] particular pet. Giving the customer options helps them understand the differences in products. We also work with local vets and post blog articles about food.”

Patti Storms, owner of Well Bred: The Healthy Pet Marketplace in Chester, N.J., hears constant worries from customers whose dogs are itchy, not eating or overweight. She said a little customer one-on-one education goes a long way.

“After speaking with them, we usually find that they are feeding their pet a poor-quality food,” Storms said. “We explain the benefits of feeding grain-free and how it can help with their pet’s particular issue and health in general.”

On the manufacturing side, companies are raising awareness of the grain-free sector in traditional and digital ways. Addiction Foods even offers a live chat on its website to answer questions about their food products.

“We have a comprehensive consumer advertising, social networking and public relations campaign,” Cadenhead noted. “We also offer retailers who stock the brand an assortment of merchandising aids.”

Annamaet regularly provides retailers with sell sheets and shelf talkers, which provide a lot of information on the grain-free products, and gives staff training and nutrition lectures, Downey said.

An active social media presence, including sharing news on food and nutrition on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, works well for Fromm.

“Additionally, we look to our retail partners to help educate the consumer,” Nieman said. “Our sales staff strives to provide as many resources as needed to the retailer, and we are proud to only sell to the independent retail channel. It’s been our experience that these shop owners are incredibly knowledgeable about our brand and pet nutrition in general and are very helpful in steering their customers toward the right food for their pet.”

On Display
With a better-educated customer base, manufacturers are finding they need to be more responsible with their products and messaging. A growing number of manufacturers are coming to the table with natural lines and more premium offerings to meet rising demand. It’s up to the retailers to make sure that these products don’t get lost on the shelves.  

“When a new item is presented that we’re convinced there is a need for and, more important, a demand is created, we’ll bring the item into the store and promote it in conjunction with the manufacturer’s marketing timetable,” Shalhoob of Theresa’s said. “We ask the manufacturer reps who call on us to schedule an educational product seminar for our staff because they are the key ingredient to getting new products off the ground. Additionally, our displays have plenty of POS and literature to help customers make an intelligent and informative decision about the foods we sell.”

At Best Buddies, customers can shop both a grain-free area and a holistic area so they have an easier time finding what they need, Ronay said. 

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Dog Marketplace: Address Allergies With Grain-Free Diets

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1- "Corn, wheat and soy usually are innocent when accused of causing food allergies."
Any protein fed in excess and for long periods of time to an animal, will eventually cause an immune reaction to that protein, and cause an allergy. Dogs should not only eat a grain free dog food, they should also be fed a variety of fresh meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables.
Corn and wheat and soy are not as "innocent" as Dr. Lou Anne Epperly would like us to believe.
2- "Vilification of food grains as pet food ingredients might be myths, according to four diplomates[sic] of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN)"
Since when does the ACVN know more than mother nature? Dogs were never meant to eat grains, they don't have any flat molars to grind grains, neither they have the type of digestive system to process grains effectively
3- “Corn is not an inherently good or bad food for dogs and cats, and there have been very few corn allergies in dogs and cats in this country,” said Dr. Lisa Weeth, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, a clinical nutritionist for Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J"
If corn is not good or bad for dogs and cats, then what is it? Would you feed corn gluten or corn starch to your children in every meal, every day, for the rest of their lives? Of course you would not, same with your dogs.
Corn is bad from the point of view that it is not a natural dog staple, its protein (gluten) does not have all the amino acids the animal requires, and it produces gas (methane is produced by bacteria digesting the corn). Saying corn is not bad or good for dogs, is like saying fast food is not bad or good for us.
4- "Corn is 8 percent protein and 80 percent starch, and rice has less than 10 percent protein, Remillard said."
Corn or rice gluten is pure protein and that is what most cheap dog foods have.
5- “True incidents of food allergy are about 10 percent of the animal population,” Remillard continued. “Most ‘people’ cases of food allergic reaction are thought to actually be food intolerance.”
What difference does it make to a pet owner whether it is a food intolerance or an allergy? We should not feed our dogs foods which their digestive systems were never meant to handle.
Jaime, Westlake, OH
Posted: 11/1/2012 12:13:42 PM
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