Functional pet food ingredients on the rise as health-minded owners seek nutritional benefits for furry friends
Functional ingredients “over and above” general nutrition needs have seen “dynamic growth” in pet foods recently, with increasingly health-minded owners seeking-out similar benefits for furry family members, Nicole Paley, deputy CEO at the UK’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) told Ingredients Network.
One area of “significant growth” is pet food ingredients and products which target microbiome health, said Paley, whose trade body PFMA represents members of the UK’s pet food industry.
Health awareness and the desire to use nutrition for health benefits is “becoming paramount” for consumers, “particularly amongst the younger generation,” said Paley, referring to a 2019 report from Chicago-based market analyst NielsenIQ which suggests that ingredient and product attributes have become a key focal point among consumers.
“This correlates positively to a growing trend of humanisation in the pet industry,” said Paley.
“People see their pets as family members and are prepared to spend more on pet food and pet-related products,” she added, citing a 2020 consumer trends report from Rotterdam-headquartered asset management company Robeco.
Growing scientific evidence for nutritional health benefits a driver
In combination, the fast pace of innovation and new product development in the small animal nutrition space in recent years can also be attributed to growing volumes of scientific data linking nutrition with health, she said.
“Through extrapolating such information from human data, and/ or taking specific studies in pets, this enables the manufacturer to direct diet towards health and well-being support.”
Together, the factors have driven big changes for pet food offerings, moving from “basic pet foods that provide the right nutrients in the right proportions to more sophisticated pet foods,” said Paley.
“As the science in human and pet nutrition continues to grow, pet food manufacturers incorporate the latest knowledge in their product research and development.”
Increasingly common functional pet food ingredients
A selection of “dietetic” foods are now recommended for pets with “unique health conditions” that either include or exclude certain ingredients, for instance with recipes designed to control mineral content and urinary pH for animals with urinary tract health problems, those to control diabetes and those targeting liver and heart conditions.
These product design aspects can include calorie density, kibble shape and texture, said Paley.
However, beside such diet-specific formulations, there are a host of key functional ingredients are now commonly found in pet foods, she said.
“These are over and above general nutritional requirements delivered by a complete food (protein, amino acids, fat, [fatty acids], minerals, trace elements and vitamins) which might support claims like ‘with Calcium for strong teeth and bones’,” said Paley.
Functional ingredients now commonly found within the pet food aisle include:
- Joint care: Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM, Hyaluronic acid, Green lipped mussel, Vitamin C, Turmeric, Omega 3 fatty acids
- Skin and Coat: Omega 3 fatty acids, Chelated zinc, biotin
- GI health: Prebiotics (such as fructooligosaccharides [FOS] and mannan oligosaccarides [MOS]), probiotics, postbiotics
- Immune function: MOS, nucleotides
- Heart health: Taurine, L-carnitine
- Weight management: L-carnitine
- Dental: Physical abrasion (i.e., cellulose), ‘breath buster’ (i.e., parsley, mint), sodium tripolyphosphate (STTP) and other polyphosphates
- Hairball control (in cats): Cellulose, psyllium husk
Other systems might include omega 3 fatty acids for brain development, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) to support cognitive health – for instance in senior dogs – and lutein to promote eye health, said Paley.
‘Significant growth’ in products for pets’ gut microbiome wellbeing
Paley also highlighted an upwards trend for microbiome-focused pet products, as scientific evidence for related health benefits grows alongside the understanding that “developing a stable and hopefully beneficial microbiome early in life will help life-long health and well-being”.
Increased understanding of the gut-brain axis is also driving uptake in the food and nutrition space at large, she said, since it is possible that the microbiome “drives mood and behaviour and the feeling of well-being, not just the specific aspect of immunity”.
Research in the field overall has skyrocketed as new methods of analysis have emerged within the past 10 years, she said, with “multiple papers published a week” on the subject. “It is a full-time job just to keep up with this area and many university depts are focussing on this area.
“[…] The knowledge base of the importance of the gut microbiome on overall animal health and wellbeing is an area of significant growth in all species including pets,” said Paley. “Considering 70% of the immune system is in the gut, it is a very important and influential part of the body.”
Strictly regulated health claims
Paley went on to stress the importance of evidence when it comes to making health claims for pet food products containing functional ingredients.
“There are strict rules in place governing the area of labelling and claims in pet food. If a claim is made, for instance, ‘Contains omega 3 fatty acids to maintain healthy joints’ this claim needs to be substantiated by clinical evidence,” she said. “A pet food manufacturer would be able to direct you to the published data that backs up the claim.”
Regulations concerning pet food health claims are supported by an industry code of conduct, Paley added – the FEDIAF European Pet Food Federation’s Guideline of Good Labelling Practice.
The rules in place mean that pet food brands cannot claim their product treats, prevents or cures a condition, she said: “It’s all about how an aspect of the diet can help support or maintain normal function of a particular aspect of health and well-being.”
Paley added: “Repercussions for non-compliance could include fines, in addition to the cost of having to correct packaging and marketing materials whilst not making sales. Non-compliance could also result in long term negative impacts on contracts, partnerships, brand perception and consumer loyalty.”
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