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Novel proteins and superfood ingredients are gradually gaining ground in the dog food and treat category, as owners seek to solve food intolerances and health problems, and pet industry experts encourage variety and protein rotation.

“Novel or exotic proteins are doing well, but still represent a smaller portion of the marketplace,” said Darren Fujii, chief growth officer/national sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based KLN Family Brands, which manufactures NutriSource Pet Foods.

Demand has gone up for proteins that meet ethical standards, like certified grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, said Mike Hamilton, NutriSource’s director of contract manufacturing.

“We are also seeing more non-meat flavors, like peanut butter and cheese, coming into the market,” he added.

Customers gravitate toward meat-free bagged treats at Natural Pet Essentials in Charlottesville, Va., probably because they are concerned about protein intolerance, said owner Kim Matsko. When it comes to bulk bar options, bully sticks, salmon skins and duck necks are some of the most favored.

“Training treats are always big sellers for us, and we notice a lot of pet parents sticking with peanut butter and cheese-based treats,” she added. “By the same token, if they are using meat-based treats, salmon and duck seem to be popular options.”

When it comes to diet, chicken and beef remain the most-sought-after proteins, but retailers say options like fish, venison, rabbit and kangaroo aren’t too far behind. Adam Balbo, manager of Loyal Biscuit Co.’s store in Bath, Maine, said pork is gaining ground quickly because of its consistently good price point and lack of association with allergies.

Turkey, lamb and fish are all trending up for NutriSource, Hamilton said.

“On a growth perspective, [novel and exotic proteins] vary, some growing faster than the chicken and beef diets, and some growing slower,” Fujii said.

Manufacturers and retailers agree that novel proteins tend to perform best in dry and canned diets.

“Pets eating raw and freeze-dried diets have lower levels of reactivity to foods, likely due to their lack of processing, so fewer raw feeders seek exotic protein options, in my experience,” Matsko said.

Food allergies are what typically push owners to try new proteins, but retailers and manufacturers recommend rotating proteins for all dogs to provide nutritional variety and to prevent food intolerances in the first place.

“The longer a pet is exposed to a particular ingredient or protein over time, the increase in likelihood that a food intolerance will develop,” Matsko explained. “That being said, I never recommend people rotate in exotic proteins out of the gate. While it is important to offer variety, it is equally important to keep a few tricks in our back pocket just in case food allergies or intolerances do develop.”

Sustainability is now a major force in the pet food industry, said David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic, a manufacturer in Lincoln, Neb.

“It’s not a coincidence that as millennials became the largest cohort of pet parents, lifestyles of health and sustainability (‘LOHAS’ consumers) drive growth,” he said.

FoodScience Corp., a manufacturer in Williston, Vt., recently introduced Pet Naturals Impawsibly Good Treats, which are made with meatless protein and respond to consumer trends in sustainability, said vice president for marketing Derek Archambault.

To illustrate the environmental impact of the pet food industry, Archambault pointed to a 2017 University of California, Los Angeles study.

“[The study found that] in the U.S., dogs and cats eat as much as one-fifth of the human population, and if our cats and dogs were their own country, they’d rank fifth in global meat consumption, making them responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States,” he explained.

Pet Naturals uses a variety of meat proteins in its diets and treats, but Archambault said Impawsibly Good Treats gave the brand a way to provide both health and ecological benefits for dogs.

“Doing a plant-based protein treat was right in our manufacturing wheelhouse, so it felt like it responded to consumer trends, and it was something that really fit what we do very well,” he said. “From a nutrition standpoint, we decided that it was an opportunity to bring something different to the table for pet parents.”

New Products

In for a Treat

New dog treats on the market feature a variety of proteins to please any canine palate.

KLN Family Brands launched new Jerky Strips through its NutriSource and PureVita brands in January.

The Perham, Minn.-based company offers four new NutriSource Jerky Strips recipes: Prairie Select (quail, duck and chicken), Outback Select (lamb, beef and kangaroo), Woodlands Select (wild boar, turkey and salmon) and High Plains Select (beef, salmon and turkey).

In addition, there are four new NutriSource and PureVita Limited Ingredient Jerky Strips: Beef, Duck, Salmon and Turkey.

All eight recipes are made up of 90 percent meat with organic pumpkin and apple cider vinegar, and no grains or gluten.

Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb., launched a trio of Biscuit Treats in December to “terrific” consumer response, said CEO David Yaskulka. Options include Red Recipe, Fowl Recipe and Calming, which contains organic hemp seed oil.

The protein-rich treats contain probiotics, whole grains and bone broth with glucosamine and chondroitin. The treats and their packaging are made with 100 percent renewable electricity, and the Certified Plastic Neutral packaging is made from 45 percent post-consumer recycled materials.

In late 2020, Pet Naturals in Williston, Vt., released its Impawsibly Good Treats, which are made with four meatless protein sources: quinoa, chia, brewer’s yeast and oats. The treats pair vegetarian ingredients with savory, meaty flavors of Chicken, Beef and Pepperoni to satisfy the desires of both sustainably minded pet owners and their dogs, said Derek Archambault, vice president for marketing of FoodScience Corp., which makes Pet Naturals.

Pet Naturals also launched its Heartibles Heart Healthy Dog Treats this winter. The treats, which come in Salmon, Chicken, Cheese and Peanut Butter flavors, feature taurine and omega-3 fatty acids to support heart health. They are made without chickpeas, lentils or other legumes and can be part of grain-free, raw or other specialty diets.

“We saw that heart health was unaddressed in the treats market and developed Heartibles as a natural solution to meet consumer needs,” Archambault said. “As concern about pets’ overall diet and its effect on heart health continues to grow, Pet Naturals is positioned to provide treats that put nutritional ingredients first.”

Ingredients

Spotlight on Superfoods

“Superfood” is a buzzword that has popped up in both human and pet markets—but what makes a food super?

“‘Superfood’ is a pretty loosely defined term in the marketplace in general, but for us we look for things that are nutrient dense, nutrient rich and deliver a bunch of potential health benefits for the pet,” said Derek Archambault, vice president for marketing of FoodScience Corp., the Williston, Vt.-based maker of Pet Naturals.

Nature’s Logic, a manufacturer in Lincoln, Neb., has been “ahead of the curve” with superfoods, said CEO David Yaskulka. The manufacturer focuses on providing 100 percent natural diets with no synthetics, so all the nutrition in its diets comes from food rather than vitamin packs.

“Every ingredient serves a specific nutritional purpose,” Yaskulka said. “Some of the more popular superfoods that we already include in our recipes include blueberries, which are high in fiber and antioxidants; kale, which is a good source of vitamin K, iodine and iron, and contains unique antioxidants; and pumpkin, which is also high in fiber and antioxidants as well as beta carotene. Our newest line of biscuits is infused with bone broth, giving a healthy boost of glucosamine and chondroitin.”

Goat milk and bone broth both rank high on retailers’ lists of most popular superfoods. Goat milk is notable for its high levels of natural probiotics, vitamins and minerals, while bone broth has great benefits for joint and digestive health, said retailer Kim Matsko, owner of Natural Pet Essentials in Charlottesville, Va.

But for the most part, customers aren’t specifically seeking out superfood ingredients. What they are looking for is solutions for gut, joint, and skin and coat health, Matsko said.

“Our customers tend to come in asking us what the ‘best’ thing for their dog is, and that certainly varies from dog to dog,” said Adam Balbo, manager of Loyal Biscuit Co.’s location in Bath, Maine. “There may be a superfood we recommend, but only if that ingredient will serve the dog well—not for the sake of marketing.”

Some superfood ingredients are showing up again and again in brands across the market.

“In general, we are seeing a lot of salmon and salmon oil, carrots, spinach, blueberries, pumpkin, sweet potato, turmeric, coconut oil, ancient grains, eggs and apple cider vinegar,” said Mike Hamilton, director of contract manufacturing for NutriSource Pet Foods, which is made by Perham, Minn.-based KLN Family Brands.

NutriSource, Nature’s Logic and Pet Naturals all incorporate pumpkin into their food and/or treats for its high content of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

“Most dogs love pumpkin,” Matsko said. “Not only is it a great source of fiber, but it’s also high in beta carotene, which is great for skin and coat health and also eye health.”

Pumpkin is paired with apple cider vinegar to complement the proteins in the new NutriSource and PureVita Jerky Strips.

In its Pet Naturals Superfood Treats, FoodScience Corp. combines pumpkin with superfood fruits, veggies and oats.

“The [treats’] kale, blueberry, apple, pumpkin and spinach provide a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids and phytonutrients that can support a dog’s health,” Archambault said.

Educating Retailers

Meet Them Where They Are

It is important for retailers to know the dog foods they sell inside and out so they can educate customers on the products.

Pet Naturals, a brand made by Williston, Vt.-based FoodScience Corp., recently introduced an education portal with short interactive modules that are up to about 10 minutes long to teach retailers about its products and how to talk to consumers about them. The company offers retailers incentives like coupons for completing modules.

Quizzes and online learning work best for Dog Krazy, which has employees spread out across seven store locations in Virginia, said president Nancy Guinn.

On the other hand, Adam Balbo, manager of Loyal Biscuit Co.’s store in Bath, Maine, said he prefers that manufacturers’ representatives visit the store to educate staff rather than rely on an online portal.

“It’s much easier to ask questions in real time than it is to go through an online portal and hope that the answer might be among that information,” he said.

Kim Matsko, owner of Natural Pet Esentials, a pet store in Charlottesville, Va., agreed.

“I’m old school and like planned store visits so we can take the time to talk directly with our manufacturers and reps,” she said. “I know we can’t always find time to sit down and watch an hour-long webinar, and talking directly to an individual is so much more personal and rewarding.”

NutriSource Pet Foods, which is made by Perham, Minn.-based KLN Family Brands, trains its retailers at any chance it gets, said Darren Fujii, chief growth officer/national sales manager.

“Our sales team regularly visits our retailers and utilizes this time, as well as online at times, to provide training, answer questions, and provide further in-depth knowledge about our products and proprietary Good 4 Life supplements,” he said.

The company’s proprietary Good 4 Life supplements system is made up of: Sel-Plex, a form of organic selenium yeast that acts as an antioxidant to support brain function; Bioplex, a patented collection of organic trace minerals—zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt and iron—to support skin and coat health; Bio-Mos, a prebiotic derived from yeast that promotes good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and Yea-Sacc, a yeast culture with five live bacteria that stimulates microbial digestion to support gut health.

“We supplement the in-person training with reference materials and information,” Fujii added. “Finally, our team is always available for specific questions that may arise during customer interactions.”