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The “natural” or “all natural” designation can make searching for high-quality pet foods vastly unclear. But today’s pet owners have less concern for the “natural” label alone and are investing in more high-quality, healthy ingredients for their pets, industry insiders reported.

Consumers shopping for natural products typically look for short ingredient lists, said Andrea Falcon, marketing and social media manager for Bocce’s Bakery, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based manufacturer of treats.

Pet owners steadily inquire about high-grade nutrition for their dogs; however, insiders report that a greater number of owners perform their own research to understand natural diets. Consumers are becoming more self-educated and asking less questions during their visits, said Justin McClenaghan, owner of Justin’s Pet Store in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Refrigerated diet options and premiumization are emerging growth drivers in this category, said Gabrielle Wesley, marketing director of Mars Petcare, a manufacturer in Franklin, Tenn.

“Three key trends we’re seeing come to life in the natural food category are: ingredient transparency, freshness and premiumization,” Wesley said. “We’re constantly keeping an eye on human food trends and looking for opportunities to translate them to pet food when it makes sense. In the case of ingredient transparency, consumers are increasingly looking for fewer, more recognizable ingredients in the products they purchase—both for themselves and for their pets.”

In terms of pet food, “natural” can also mean having lack of artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, Wesley noted. Mars Petcare plans to release new dog food recipes in early 2022, each aligning with natural trends.

“We believe pet parents look for food that is rich in nutrients, full of flavor and made with high-quality ingredients. Our recipes are made with real beef, lamb, chicken or turkey as the first ingredient, and we exclusively source non-GMO ingredients as close to their native form as possible,” Wesley said. “We never add artificial preservatives, flavors or colors and do not use ingredients like chicken byproduct meal, corn wheat or soy protein.”

“Natural” is a descriptive term that seems positive on the surface level, said Brad Gruber, president of Health Extension, a manufacturer in Hauppauge, N.Y.

“In an effort to appeal to consumers, manufacturers have used the ‘natural’ term on pet food labeling,” Gruber said, adding, however, that there are guidelines pet food companies should adhere to before labeling their products as “natural.”

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines a “natural” feed product or feed ingredient as being derived from plant, animal or mined sources, not produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process, and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts that might occur in good manufacturing practices.

“In a sense, ‘natural’ means as close to nature as possible with purer, simpler and higher-quality ingredients,” Gruber said. “We only use the most stringent quality natural whole foods and natural ingredients that contain high levels of animal proteins that are grass fed, free range or wild caught.”

Two main social trends are fueling growth in the natural food category, Gruber added.

“One is the humanization of pet food to mirror the foods humans are eating themselves, and second is the pet parents’ demand to understand transparency in the entire supply chain of how, where and what goes into their pet’s food and how clean those ingredients are,” he said.

Health Extension released Super Bites, a superfood freeze-dried diet for dogs, in June 2021. Super Bites aid in digestion and overall health, and provide an easy way to turn an ordinary pet food into a culinary delight, Gruber said.

“These cutting-edge new bites are naturally healthy superfoods that boost a dog’s diet with all of the benefits of tasty super ingredients, while playing an important role in fortifying a pet’s diet,” Gruber said. “These non-GMO and grain-free recipes are crafted with raw protein-packed chicken, beef and salmon. They also have a blend of antioxidant-rich superfoods like coconut oil, sweet potato, turmeric and apple cider vinegar you won’t find anywhere else.”

Fromm Family Foods defines “natural” dog nutrition as the inclusion of wholesome ingredients including meats, fruits and vegetables, and avoids using ingredients perceived as heavily processed, said Bryan Nieman, brand director of the Mequon, Wis.-based pet food company.

“There are several topics trending in today’s natural diet market, and many consumer demands center around the idea of variety,” Nieman added. “Consumers want a variety of ingredients, including main protein sources or grain-free and grain-inclusive options, and variety in terms of how pet parents approach mealtime in their own home through varying recipes, rotational diets, and canned options.”

Whole-grain dog foods have also been popular. Fromm Family Foods recipes include whole barley, whole oats, and premium fruits and vegetables. In July 2021, Fromm Family Foods introduced Fromm Four-Star Nutritionals Trout & Whitefish Recipe for dogs, enhancing its variety-driven line of premium dog food recipes.

“The recipe features a grain-inclusive blend of trout and whitefish,” Nieman said. “It offers premium proteins including trout, whitefish, salmon, egg and menhaden fish meal, and is both chicken and potato free. Our Trout & Whitefish Recipe is also the first Four-Star dog food to include Miscanthus grass in its formulation, which is a gut-health-promoting nutrient. It was designed to be fed on its own or in rotation with any other Fromm recipe.”

Merchandising

Create Displays that Educate

Considering customers’ pet nutritional concerns can be vital for pet specialty retailers assessing their store’s assortment within this category. By crafting a curated selection of natural pet food varieties, including solution-based diets, retailers can successfully provide their shoppers with options while not overwhelming them with product, industry insiders said.

“We suggest our retailers categorize their shelves by natural, grain-free and functional foods, enabling the consumer to shop by need on a more focused need basis while making the shopping experience an easier and less confusing one,” said Brad Gruber, president of Health Extension, a manufacturer in Hauppauge N.Y. “Offering a selection of brands by price point, [for example], good, better, best, has a place in most stores.”

Gruber also suggested using displays to promote products that make for a healthier pet.

Having shelves organized so pet owners can clearly identify nutrition labels can play a key role in how customers shop natural food sections in retail locations.

“Keeping aisles clean and organized is essential,” said Merrie Morris, owner of Tail Waggin’ Pet Shop in Kansas City, Mo. “We pull bags of food products forward to the end of the shelves and ensure the nutrition labels are visible to customers.”

Fromm Family Foods continuously releases new natural diet lines, which helps refresh stock on the shelves, Morris said.

Retailers should keep their pet food products current and organize shelves by specific nutritional concerns, insiders noted.

“Now more than ever, I see an increasing number of natural diets that are focused on specific issues,” said Justin McClenaghan, owner of owner of Justin’s Pet Store in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. “Examples include urinary care, renal, digestive and weight management. This trend of solution-based dieting has been growing in the pet food market for years and is now becoming popular in the natural pet food market.”

Shelves can also be organized to highlight the different nutritional profiles offered by various formulas. Organizing displays so customers can identify product lines to fit the specific nutritional needs of their pets is crucial, said Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

“At Fromm, we have three unique product lines of dry dog foods: Classic, Gold and Four-Star Nutritionals,” Nieman said. “All provide whole and balanced nutrition and are considered natural products but with various price points and recipe varieties to satisfy customer demand.”


Trade Talk

Amy Snell, national sales manager at Northwest Naturals in Portland, Ore.

What is a common misconception about “natural” pet food that retailers should keep in mind as they are educating customers in making the right diet choices for their pets? How does Northwest Naturals educate pet owners, and what’s new from the company? 

One of the most common misconceptions we often hear at Northwest Naturals from consumers is their concern for feeding raw food to their pet because it is full of harmful bacteria. Consumers often ask, “Won’t it make my dog (or cat) sick?” This question then leads into the conversation of describing the pet’s system and how it is designed to eat and digest raw meat along with any bacteria that it may contain.

Northwest Naturals has continued to grow our online presence with social media platforms, from Facebook and Instagram to the now very popular TikTok. Here we share fun facts about raw food, post consumers’ and retailers’ pets, and announce our new SKUs that are soon to be out in stores. Last week our followers learned about the 28-ounce value-sized freeze-dried recipe bag for dogs. Soon they will also find out about our newest recipe, Beef & Trout. This will come in all sizes of frozen raw and freeze-dried for both dogs and cats.