What Does Natural Mean in the Pet Food Market?

More than ever before, pet owners are highly committed to what their dogs and cats are eating and how it might impact their overall health. For that reason, natural pet foods continue to produce more sales.

Of course, when it comes to "natural" pet food, the actual definition can run the gamut. Both retailers and manufacturers appear to have their own definitions for what constitutes a "natural food." Even so, in speaking to industry experts, most agreed that, at the very least, natural in regard to food means a product has been minimally processed and is as close to its natural state as possible.

"Generally speaking, most natural foods contain limited ingredients and never any fillers," said Patrick McGarry, general manager of St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos.

Though Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas, said that the company’s working definition of natural foods for cats and dogs is one that excludes synthetic preservatives or colors and high-risk GMO crops like wheat, corn and soy, she added that natural food sales are also closely tied to organic food sales.

"It’s not surprising that as consumers become more aware of the food that they choose for themselves, they are applying the same or even greater level of care when choosing foods for their companions," Acuff said. "This is partly driven by increasing environmental awareness and concern for the potential negative impact some additives may have on the health of our pets."

David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb., said that many "natural" pet foods come with a "but," and the narrative is that they are "all natural but contain added vitamins and minerals," which are synthetic.

"To Nature’s Logic, 100 percent natural means that our food is made from 100 percent natural ingredients and no synthetic anything—including vitamins and minerals," he said. "The nutrients in our diets come from real, whole foods. For instance, our vitamin D comes from fish and eggs, not from a synthetic vitamin pack manufactured in China."

Many retailers have developed their own definitions for the term "natural pet diets" and adhere to it when selecting foods for their product assortments. Nicci Decrisantis, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn., who also performs nutritional counseling for pets, said that she doesn’t carry anything that she wouldn’t feed to her own pets. She defined natural foods as those that are biologically appropriate for the animal to digest. It’s the reason she is focused primarily on raw food for the bulk of her business. Those sales continue to grow as people begin to understand the link between nutrition and health.

Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center in North Royalton, Ohio, suggested that because "natural" does mean different things to different people, what it really comes down to is choosing the most healthful option. "The goal is finding the best choice for overall health and that addresses any specific issues that pet may be having," she added.

Helping Natural Foods Stand Out

Many retailers are looking for ways to promote the natural category and help their customers make healthful choices.

"One way to make natural foods stand out is to be able to explain the benefits of those foods," McCoy said. "That’s ultimately what people want to know—what’s going to be the outcome of switching to this healthier food? It could be a better coat, a healthier weight or just overall improved longevity. Customers want to understand those benefits."

Many pet owners are also looking for guidance when trying to choose the best option among a dizzying array of choices.

"Shopping for foods can be an overwhelming experience due to the growing number of brands and products on the market," McGarry said. "It certainly helps to have a specific aisle or section in the store dedicated to natural foods, along with proper signage."

Drawing a hard line between natural and other foods can be challenging for even the savviest pet owner, Acuff added. In many cases, products will overlap categories—and much of it depends on that "definition" of natural, which can vary. But Acuff said that the way foods are organized can help pet owners make a wise choice.

"Pet food formulas are complex matrices with a high number of variables, from raw material sources, processing technologies and preservation methods," she added. "There is not one size that fits all for natural foods. Rather, categorizing products by level of premiumization—nutrient composition, ingredient quality and cost—rather than defining as natural or unnatural, would allow pet parents to seek their preferred price range and the products that meet their individual standards for natural."

Consumer Education

Teachable Moments

Given the varying definitions of "natural," pet owners often express that they struggle to navigate this category. This is a perfect opportunity for retailers to step up and assist their customers in making the best possible choices for their pet. There are many ways to approach this, including efforts that go beyond assisting customers in-store.

First and foremost, it’s important to keep an open-minded definition about what "natural" might mean to your customers, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas.

"Are they seeking 100 percent natural foods, natural foods with added trace nutrients or sustainable sourcing and eco-friendly packaging," she said. "Pet parents are willing to spend extra to ensure that they are making the best decision for their pet—but that decision making is driven by having a wide scope of information at their fingertips."

Retailers can provide that information to customers in a number of ways.

"Sending out an occasional e-blast to customers that highlights the benefits of natural foods can be helpful," said Patrick McGarry, general manager of St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos.

Social media is often an effective tool that pet retailers can use to communicate with their customers, said Neil Thompson, vice president of sales for Pets Global in Valencia, Calif.

"Also, pet brands have a wide variety of marketing materials available for retailers to utilize when educating their customers about products they’re carrying in their stores," he added. "Finally, having brochures on-hand for customers to take with them about the product may seem outdated, but some customers still prefer having something to take home with them and read in their free time."

While many independent retailers are committed to promoting a particular type of natural food, Trace Menchaca, owner of Flying M Feed Co. in Houston, said it’s important not to lose sight that if a certain diet is not sustainable for a customer either due to cost or lifestyle, it’s not going to "stick."

"It’s important to educate customers that this isn’t a moral choice," Menchaca said. "For a lot of customers, it’s about making the best possible healthy choice for one’s pets that fits within their lifestyle and their budget. If we can’t offer more convenient and affordable healthy solutions, there are customers that are ultimately going to fall back into buying their dog and cat food at the local big-box store. That’s why it’s so important to think long-term. Not every customer that comes into our store can afford raw, and we have to remember that when educating them and providing options."

New Products

Meeting Today’s Needs

There are a number of new foods in the natural pet food marketplace.

Austin, Texas-based Nulo recently launched two food lines.

"We’re proud to be launching two completely new product lines this quarter, both responding to unmet needs from natural pet products retailers," said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo. "Nulo Challenger is an ultra-premium, high-meat kibble line with industry-leading animal-based protein levels of up to 90 percent. In addition, Nulo Frontrunner is our second line of grain-based formulas that will open up the Nulo family of products to additional consumers with competitive value positioning that still maintains high animal-based protein levels and a commitment to low carbohydrate levels and wholesome grains like oats, barley and brown rice."

Pets Global, headquartered in Valencia, Calif., has two new pet food lines: Essence and Essence LIR (Limited Ingredient Recipe). Essence LIR has only eight ingredients and is free of legumes, potatoes, corn, wheat, soy and gluten. It is for dogs and offered in both wet and dry variations. The Essence pet food line is for both dogs and cats.

"It also uses the highest-quality proteins from responsible and clean sources with such ingredients as guineafowl, turkey, herring, salmon, boar and lamb," said Neil Thompson, vice president of sales. "Essence has 85 percent animal protein ingredients and comes in both wet and dry variations."

Patrick McGarry, general manager of St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, said that Hound & Gatos has introduced a new line of dry food for both cats and dogs that does not use plant proteins. Instead, this limited-ingredient food is made with more than 84 percent of the highest-quality meat, poultry or fish, as well as nutritious eggs.

"Plus, they’re crafted with a medley of superfoods, such as blueberries, cranberries, broccoli and dandelion greens," McGarry added. "Three grain-free varieties for cats and three grain-free varieties for dogs can be found on shelves. Additionally, two options made with the finest ancient grains, such as spelt, quinoa and oats, are available for dogs."

In addition, David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb., said that the company has introduced Nature’s Logic Distinction, a 100 percent natural dog food. Distinction has non-GMO ancient grain millet, does not have peas or potatoes and is legume free. Whole meat is the first ingredient, and formulas include Chicken, Beef, Pork and Sardine.