A Useful Primer on Gently Cooked Dog Foods

Though lightly or gently cooked diets are not new, they certainly are an emerging trend in the dog food category. Also called cooked frozen, these diets entered the market in the late 2000s, but most companies started introducing them in the past two to three years.

Demand for these diets is growing, and category experts attribute the increase to several factors—from a better understanding about the link between nutrition and health to mirroring the changes in people’s own diets to more veterinarians recommending fresh foods.

"The demand comes from pet parents becoming more educated thanks to veterinarians like Dr. Karen Becker who are on the cutting edge of pet nutrition research," said Braeden Ruud, co-founder and CEO of Raised Right, a Rye, N.Y.-based food manufacturer.

Gently cooked foods are well positioned to meet these educated consumers’ demands.

Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face, a pet store in Redlands, Calif., said, "As pet parents are looking for better feeding options that are more nutritionally beneficial, less processed and enticing for their animals to eat, [gently cooked food] is an excellent option."

Home cooking definitely is on the rise, experts noted.

"By 2009, I read statistics that stated up to 5 percent of pet owners ‘home cooked’ their own food," said Karen Neola, CEO and pack lead at My Perfect Pet, a Poway, Calif.-based manufacturer of lightly cooked pet food. "I am now seeing statistics as high as 17 percent, which I feel is more accurate given the number of pet parents I speak with who are home cooking all or part of their pet’s diet."

In response, manufacturers of lightly or gently cooked diets aim to provide home-style preparation in a convenient package.

"Home cooking for pets has become more popular, but convenience is still critical in being able to feed your pet a high-quality diet that they love that fits your lifestyle," said Evan Shuster, vice president of marketing for Open Farm, a Toronto-based manufacturer.

Katia Buskirk, owner of Z Bones Pet Mercantile, a pet store on Bainbridge Island, Wash., finds lightly and gently cooked diets are a good transitional option for dog owners.

"As the fresh category grows and customers understand and look toward fresh, it’s an easy transition," she said. "It’s easier to go from kibble to gently cooked instead of straight to raw."

Along with seeking fresher foods, other demands from dog owners purchasing in this category include ethical sourcing, sustainable seafood and transparency of ingredients.

"Pet parents are beginning to look beyond the nutrient profile listed on the package and demand cleaner labels and transparency by pet food manufacturers," Neola said. "Local sourcing is important, as well as humane treatment of animals and species-appropriate protein sources."

Customers at Fido Park Avenue, which has two stores in Virginia, "love that it looks like real food and that some lines we sell are, in fact, human grade," said Lori Guthrie, general manager.

"There is an environmental aspect of not using cans and less ‘waste’ in the packaging," she added.

Buskirk agreed.

"My community trends see owners definitely questioning and making sure [food products] contain traceable ingredients," she said, adding that customers "are all about sustainability and packaging and humane treatment of animals."

Defining the Category

What is Gently Cooked?

As an emerging subcategory in pet foods, lightly or gently cooked diets are leaving some dog owners uncertain about what the diets really are, industry insiders reported. To help, pet specialty retailers need to be prepared to clarify the terms and processes used.

"Some pet parents are confused as they’ve heard that lightly cooked foods are partially raw and not fully cooked," said Braeden Ruud, co-founder and CEO of Raised Right, a Rye, N.Y.-based manufacturer. "The reason the diet is called lightly cooked is because the recipes are cooked to the minimum temperatures required by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] USDA to kill pathogens like E. coli, listeria and salmonella. Recipes cooked this way are fully cooked; they’re just cooked at lower temperatures."

Those temperatures are 145 degrees Fahrenheit for beef and pork and 165 degrees Fahrenheit for turkey and chicken, he said. Canned foods, on the other hand, are cooked in a retort sterilization process with temperatures reaching 230-275 degrees Fahrenheit.

"With multiple companies entering the cooked frozen space, new terms are emerging such as ‘gently cooked,’ ‘lightly cooked’ and ‘partially cooked,’" said Karen Neola, CEO and pack lead at My Perfect Pet, a manufacturer in Poway, Calif. "As the category grows, we will see standardization of terms, but for now it is up to each company to provide sufficient information for the consumer to understand the processes being used and the standards being met."

Not only are there different terms describing these foods, but there are nuances in each company’s cooking process. For example, cooked frozen foods typically contain lightly cooked meats blended with fresh raw vegetables and fruit, Neola said. Other diets combine the meats with fruits and vegetables, and then gently cook the recipe using sous-vide, sauté or another cooking method, said Evan Shuster, vice president of marketing for Open Farm, a Toronto-based manufacturer.

"This gradual cooking process retains more flavor, nutrients and vitamins, while providing higher food safety as the low heat removes bacteria," Shuster said.

Because they typically contain minimally processed ingredients and no preservatives, the finished products must be stored frozen, Neola explained. Once they are thawed, dog owners can keep the food in the refrigerator like any preservative-free cooked meat.

"Cooked frozen mixes well with dry, offering consumers a fresh alternative to canned [foods] or toppers, with the taste of real meat that even picky eaters love," Neola added. "Muscle meat also contains natural amino acids, including natural taurine, eliminating the need to supplement with synthetic amino acids. The ingredients list on frozen products [is] so much shorter than dry or most canned."

On the Market

What’s for Dinner?

For pet owners looking for a fresh alternative to traditional dog foods, several manufacturers offer lightly cooked diets for canine companions. Offerings range from those providing overall nutrition to functional diets to foods that can be used as a meal or a mixer.

Raised Right offers four lightly cooked, homestyle, whole-food Adult Dog Recipes that are frozen, and then served fresh. The limited-ingredient recipes come in Pork, Beef, Chicken and Turkey. They contain human-grade meat, organic herbs, non-GMO oils and superfoods, they are batch-tested for safety, and there are no preservatives or fillers, according to the manufacturer.

"We’re the first company to voluntarily submit a recipe to be tested by Check Your Pet Food," said Braeden Ruud, co-founder and CEO of the Rye, N.Y.-based company. "The results from testing our Turkey Adult Dog Recipe showed that the guaranteed analysis matches our label and that the nutritional analysis meets [Association of American Feed Control Officials] AAFCO’s standards for a complete and balanced diet for adult dogs. We were able to formulate this recipe, along with all of our adult dog recipes, to meet AAFCO’s requirements for a complete and balanced diet through using only whole foods with no added vitamins and minerals."

My Perfect Pet provides gently cooked fresh food diets for dogs in a variety of life stages. The company’s standard blend dog food comes in the following varieties: Knight’s Beef Grain Free Blend, Buckaroo Chicken & Beef Blend, Roxy’s Lamb & Beef Grain Free Blend, Boomer’s Chicken & Beef Blend, Snuggles Chicken & Rice Blend and Hunter’s Turkey & Wild Salmon Grain Free Blend. The company also offers specialty blends for common health issues: a Low Phosphorus Lamb & Rice Blend and three Low Glycemic Blends labeled as potato and grain free "for dogs needing a restricted carb diet or one with a low calculated glycemic load," said Karen Neola, CEO and pack lead at the Poway, Calif.-based manufacturer.

"To local veterinarians, we also offer a variety of lower sodium, lower copper and lower fat options," she added. "As demand increases for these, they will be released for national distribution."

In Q4 2019, Open Farm in Toronto launched Gently Cooked Recipes in three sizes (8-, 16- and six 12-ounce containers) and four varieties: Homestead Turkey, Harvest Chicken, Grass-Fed Beef and Surf & Turf. Formulated to be used as home-cooked-style meals or as mixers, the products feature Global Animal Partnership (GAP) and Certified Humane meats and Ocean Wise-approved seafood, high meat and low carb content, nutrient-dense leafy greens, salmon oil, chia seeds, non-GMO fruits and vegetables, and transparent ingredient sourcing, according to the manufacturer.

How to Educate Customers on Gently Cooked Diets

With nutrition being such a core part of pet health, education is crucial. Add to that an emerging diet category, and industry insiders rank consumer education as a top priority, offering these strategic components.

Connect Nutrition and Health

"Only by understanding the relationship between diet and health will consumers understand how spending a little more in the freezer can reduce the stress on their pet’s digestive tract, boost their pet’s immune system and fuel increased energy," said Karen Neola, CEO and pack lead at My Perfect Pet, a Poway, Calif.-based manufacturer.

As consumers become more educated about how a fresh, whole-food diet benefits their health and well-being, it’s easier for them to apply those same principles to their pets’ diets, she explained.

While manufacturers and pet specialty retailers report seeing progress on this front, continued education is needed to help dog owners understand the connection between their pet’s nutrition and long-term health.

Ease the Transition

Retailers said they have customers who want to feed their dogs raw foods or add more fresh foods into their pets’ diets but remain hesitant to do it. Cooked frozen dog foods can provide pet owners with a transitional step or ease their concern with a middle-of-the-road alternative.

"Raw is becoming more widely discussed, so while consumers are aware of raw, many are still uncomfortable with making that change," said Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face, a pet store in Redlands, Calif. "The lightly cooked category falls right in the middle and is instantly accepted. It’s also a steppingstone toward the raw category and moves clients and their pets away from cheap and convenient, highly processed, carb-heavy diets."

Offer Samples

Many retailers swear by sampling to encourage pet owners to try something new.

"Samples are the easiest way to convert somebody," said Katia Buskirk, owner of Z Bones Pet Mercantile, a pet store on Bainbridge Island, Wash. "I find that 30-40 percent of customers who sample come back to buy."

Lori Guthrie, general manager of Fido Park Avenue, which has two stores in Virginia, agreed.

"We are very big on sampling at Fido Park Avenue, and our customers love the idea that they can try before they buy," Guthrie said. "The response has been overwhelmingly quick with some of our core customers."

Leverage Social Media

Savvy businesses take advantage of the educational possibilities social media can offer. For example, Guthrie said they’ve made videos of their own dogs eating the products and have received customer testimonials to use on their social media.

Evan Shuster, vice president of marketing for Open Farm, a Toronto-based manufacturer, uses social media to benefit the category and help direct customers to the company’s retail partners.

"Leveraging our social channels as well as working with influencers and media partners to drive awareness, we know that we have to educate consumers about this new category, why it’s a great solution for them and where they can find it at their independent pet retailer," he said.