Posted: August 30, 2013, 1:30 p.m. EDT
This fast-growing dog food category is being touted as a possible solution for allergy issues, as well as for other health benefits.
By Lizett Bond
It’s a commonly held belief that dogs are descended from the wolf. In fact, some scientists estimate that our loyal companions have been curled up at the hearth for nearly 33,000 years. Along the way, the digestive system of Canis lupus familiaris cheerfully adapted to eating table scraps and, eventually, pet foods with a range of ingredients, including grains. However, many are coming to the conclusion that Fido doesn’t do cereal.
What’s Driving the Trend
With grains often considered the culprit for allergies and other intestinal upsets, demand for grain-free dog foods is on the rise, said Anita Nair, operations manager for Addiction Pet Foods based in Kent, Wash.
These views correlate with a growing absorption in human health and nutrition, further driving the movement toward grain-free pet foods.
"As pet lovers become more aware of their own dietary needs in order to live healthier lives, they are also becoming increasingly concerned with the quality of their pet’s food,” said Heather Govea, general manager of Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc. in Pacoima, Calif.
Likewise, as consumers recognize the health benefits afforded by a grain-free diet, retailers are stepping up, stocking an ever-expanding selection of premium, grain-free formulas.
With so many grain-free options available, manufacturers have set out to distinguish
themselves with carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes, peas, chickpeas and lentils. Carrie Brenner/i5-Publishing at Howlistic
For these reasons, the category is growing six times faster than natural, nongrain free foods, said Pete Brace, vice president of communications at Merrick Pet Care Inc. and Castor & Pollux Natural Petworks in Amarillo, Texas.
Further, the transition from backyard fixture to family member propels this impetus.
"There continues to be strong demand for pet food products that follow human food trends, such as grain free and gluten free,” said Jessica Holtz, marketing manager for Petcurean in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
"When it comes to furry members of our family, it’s easy to make the connection between good food and good health,” said Justin Magnuson, regional sales director for Raw Bistro Pet Fare in Cannon Falls, Minn.
This link is also motivating consumer research, and the knowledge base of today’s label-savvy shopper extends beyond the term "grain free.”
"Consumers understand the life-giving nutriment of clean ingredient panels and what benefit each ingredient might provide to their pet,” noted Holly Sher, owner and president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. in Wheeling, Ill.
But it’s not just labels that are providing the enlightenment; today’s pet owner also consults the Internet when seeking guidance, said Marie Moody, founder and president of Stella & Chewy’s in Milwaukee.
"The influx of information on the Internet has had a significant impact on purchasing habits,” agreed Tim Fabits, vice president of sales for Long Beach, Calif.-based Redbarn Pet Products.
As a result, consumers are looking at numerous variables in food buying decisions, often turning to foods falling within the premium category, noted Fabits.
"The days of pet owners just walking into the store and picking up any bag of food they see advertised is slowly fading away,” said Rob Cadenhead, vice president of marketing and sales for Mitchell, S.D.-based Performance Pet Products, maker of Spring Naturals. "Not only have consumers become more aware of the immediate symptom-addressing benefits, but also the long-term rewards of feeding wholesome, nutritious foods to their furry family companions.”
And consumers are willing to pay for these perks.
"The more educated pet-loving consumers become, the more they are willing to spend money on a diet promoting nutrition from clean and wholesome ingredients,” said Chelsea Sher, president of Against the Grain Pet Foods in Wheeling, Ill.
Moreover, the added expense of feeding a grain-free diet to combat skin, coat and allergy issues is often offset by fewer visits to the veterinarian for treatment, Fabits said.
He added that, according to Redbarn Pet Products’ research, numerous variables are taken into consideration when making purchasing decisions.
"Not only are we hearing our customers say they want grain-free products, they want them to be a limited ingredient diet as well,” said Bill Greene, general manager of Reber Ranch, a retailer in Kent, Wash.
Manufacturers are listening to consumers and developing limited-ingredient, grain-free diets using unique sources of protein combined with diverse carbohydrates.
"The newest addition to our grain-free Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diet is the Potato and Rabbit Formula dry dog food,” Govea said. "The high-quality rabbit is a unique source of protein, and the formula also features potatoes, which are rich in potassium and a highly digestible energy source.”
With these factors in mind, the Castor & Pollux Organix brand recently added new recipes to its Butcher & Bushel canned varieties for dogs, the majority of which are grain-free, using certified organic meats and vegetables, according to the company. In dry dog food, the company’s Natural Ultramix Grain-Free Duck, Sweet Potatoes & Whole Peas Entrée is made with natural deboned duck listed as the No. 1 ingredient.
"Pet parents seeking natural and organic food options for their pets are highly motivated toward knowing what ingredients are used in their pet food and where those ingredients come from,” said Brace.
Along these lines, Zack Grey, owner of The Urban Pet, with three locations in the Los Angeles area, added that he is noticing an inclination among consumers toward foods made with fresh ingredients as opposed to meat meal.
Chelsea Sher agreed, noting that educated consumers are becoming more aware of the benefits of a moist diet using fresh meats.
In light of these stipulations, manufacturers are attempting to distinguish themselves within the grain-free category, from potato-free products to promoting low glycemic attributes, said Andrew Kim, owner of Healthy Spot, with three stores in the Los Angeles area.
"The real area of differentiation is in the carbohydrates, potato versus sweet potato versus garbanzo beans versus peas,” Kim added.
There’s a growing awareness of the benefits of feeding a grain-free and low-glycemic diet, said Brad Armistead, vice president of marketing and innovation for Los Angeles-based Dogswell. All of the company’s grain-free recipes use low-glycemic ingredients, such as peas and chickpeas, in place of grains, he said.
"According to the Glycemic Research Institute, not only do low-glycemic diets align with the natural diet for cats and dogs, but avoiding high-glycemic foods can also help control weight and reduces the risk of many diseases,” Armistead said.
In July, the company launched its newest grain-free food, LiveFree.
"Offered in both dry and canned food recipes, LiveFree is a high protein, holistic line of ultra-low-glycemic dog food with added vitamins and chelated minerals for better nutrient absorption,” Armistead said.
Are consumers "mixing it up” by adding frozen, canned or raw to their dog’s kibble?
"Absolutely. Certainly feeding raw full time is optimal; however, that is not always feasible for all pet parents.”—Justin Magnuson, regional sales director of Raw Bistro Pet Fare in Cannon Falls, Minn.
"Pet-loving consumers definitely want to mix up the variety of flavors and nutrition they offer their pets, especially if a pet develops an intolerance or an illness. Through greater education, pet parents are becoming more aware of the benefits of incorporating a combination of dry and canned foods together due to the fact that higher moisture content aids in nutrient absorption.”—Chelsea Sher, president of Against the Grain Pet Foods in Wheeling, Ill.
"That’s one of the ways that we are encouraging retailers to sell food, as an add-on to existing kibble. It’s great for the health of the animal, because they are at least getting some of this type of nutrition. I think these consumers will eventually switch over completely. But if they can’t, you just want to encourage them to do more of a good thing. I don’t think it’s good to make people feel bad about what they are feeding.”—Marie Moody, founder and president of Stella & Chewy’s in Milwaukee
"Yes, most of our customers feed more than just kibble. We highly recommend a rotation diet, as well as mixing dry, canned and dehydrated. This provides not only a holistic and balanced diet, but also one that is always interesting and enjoyable.”—Anita Nair, operations manager of Addiction Pet Foods in Kent, Wash.
Petcurean recently added a potato-free formula to its grain-free lineup. Go! Sensitivity + Shine Grain Free, Potato Free Turkey Recipe For Dogs uses lentils as a significant carb source, rather than potatoes or grains, Holtz said.
Because of consumer demand, Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. recently evolved its low-grain Whitefish and Sweet Potato dry kibble into a grain-free formula as well as adding ingredients to enhance digestion, palatability and nutrient density, said Holly Sher.
"Our customers have been asking for this, and listening to our retail partners and our end-consumers is very important,” she said.
Intended to mimic the diets of dogs in the wild with the benefits of modern nutrition, Natural Balance offers its Alpha line with novel ingredients such as garbanzo beans, prebiotics for digestion, and diverse carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and peas, Govea said.
Use of novel and exotic ingredients as protein sources is on the rise, and Addiction Pet Foods has recently introduced a grain-free dehydrated food, Outback Kangaroo Feast. As a main protein source, kangaroo is lean, high-quality game meat, according to Nair.
"We also offer New Zealand lamb that is grain free, as well as a grain-free pork food,” Nair added.
Redbarn Pet Products recently launched a new line of grain-free dog food, called Redbarn Naturals, that is made in the USA and uses bully sticks as an ingredient for a natural source of high-quality protein and increased palatability, Fabits said.
"This natural ingredient offers Redbarn partners many opportunities to appeal to a wide range of pet parents,” Fabits added.
Beyond nutritional content of the foods, sourcing continues to emerge as a concern.
"Made in the USA positioning has also become a highly sought after feature in the purchasing process, especially in light of the recent issues our industry has been forced to address with products manufactured in China,” Fabits said.
Since the first stop for today’s inquiring pet owners might be the computer, Govea suggests social media platforms to help retailers get the word out about new grain-free products. In addition to providing information over the Internet, this method allows retailers to respond quickly and efficiently to questions and comments.
"Today consumers can ask questions and get a response almost immediately,” she said. "Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have certainly made the job of retailing healthful pet products in a creative way much easier.”
Marketing stews or canned foods as a "topper” to kibble is another excellent way of incrementally increasing each sale, said Cadenhead. Spring Naturals grain-free kibbles are balanced and so can be rotated without the pet experiencing stomach upset, he said.
Additionally, Cadenhead noted that sampling is an effective method of introducing customers to grain-free foods.
"We offer 3-ounce free samples in a variety of flavors along with introductory coupons to spur trial,” he said.
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