Pet food companies are betting big that consumers will pay for less-processed (and often more expensive) products to feed their pets. Judging by the pet food trends I saw at Global Pet Expo (GPE) 2017, air-dried/dehydrated pet foods may signify the next big growth segment, along with baked kibble and treats, and “kibble plus” products.

Held March 22-24 in Orlando, Florida, USA, this year’s GPE was the largest ever, according to show organizer American Pet Products Association. As big as the show was, I can’t say I saw many truly revolutionary pet food products; but the air-dried trend was striking in how it showed up in products from niche players as well as larger pet food companies.

For example, Isle of Dogs, which previously offered only treats, plus shampoo and other skin care products for dogs, is going big with its Nourish brand. That will encompass not only supplements, dental treats and air-dried jerky, but also the company’s first line of pet food: four air-dried formulas, including its first ever product for cats. All the air-dried products are sourced and made in New Zealand (another fairly common theme).

Other smaller companies venturing into air-dried products include SmartBones (PetMatrix), with new treats also from New Zealand, along with freeze-dried ones, and Cloud Star, traditionally a treat company now launching its Wellmade pet food line, including dehydrated mixers, baked kibble and wet products, all grain free. Nulo and Buckley are also launching new freeze-dried pet food lines.

Earth Animal, which started with a pet store in Connecticut, USA, and gradually added products developed by its veterinarian owner, Bob Goldstein, is introducing a full air-dried pet food line, Wisdom. Offering two formulas for dogs now – chicken and turkey, with other proteins plus a cat food to come soon, Goldstein said – the food is 70 percent dried meat, 20 percent Composite Cubes (a proprietary component consisting of protein, sprouted seeds, fruit and vegetable extracts, plus vitamins and minerals, all air dried and compacted into a small cube resembling a crouton), and 10 percent whole-dried fruits and vegetables.

Dry to raw and back again

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of company size, WellPet is launching RawRev as part of its Core brand, a kibble plus line of dry pet food combined with freeze-dried meat bits. A company spokesperson told me they wanted to wait to introduce this type of product until they could manufacture the raw part themselves, and their 2016 acquisition of Sojo’s (which does solely air-dried and freeze-dried pet foods) now allows them to do just that. The Core brand also now includes pure freeze-dried treats as well as shredded moist toppers featuring only four or five ingredients.

WellPet is one of several companies that had long offered more traditional pet food products and are now venturing into some of the so-called alternative formats. Stella Chewy’s is bucking that trend and going in the opposite direction: one of the first companies to offer only raw frozen and freeze-dried pet food, it’s now introducing two dry, baked lines. Its Raw Blend features freeze-dried raw bits mixed with “raw coated” baked kibble – essentially, the freeze-dried bits ground into a dust and coating the kibble – while Raw Coated Kibble is just the baked kibble coated in that freeze-dried raw dust.

The concept behind Stella Chewy’s new products is to entice pet food consumers who may be interested in trying raw but don’t want to commit to, or pay for, fully raw diets, according to a company spokesperson. These are “entry level” raw products, she said, with the intention of moving buyers up to eventually purchasing the full raw pet foods.

As with many of the newer formats, cost is a significant factor; that’s one reason kibble plus diets are the fastest-growing segment within the freeze-dried category, with an average price of US$3.16 per pound vs. US$32.47 for 100 percent freeze dried, according to GfK. While 100 percent dehydrated (air dried) is a little more palatable, at an average of US$8.02 per pound, some of the new products are reaching beyond that. Isle of Dogs said a 5-pound bag of its air-dried Nourish dog food would retail for US$79.99, and Goldstein of Earth Animal told me the 15-pound bag of his new air-dried Wisdom food line could sell for US$125 or more. It’s highly concentrated, meaning that bag could feed a 50-pound dog for at least a month – but getting pet food purchasers to buy into that (literally) will likely take a lot of education.

Causes, certifications and claims

Joey Herrick, one of the founders of Natural Balance Pet foods, started Lucy Pet a few years ago for one main reason: his Lucy Pet Foundation, which provides free spay/neuter surgeries for pets of owners in low-income areas, needed funds to continue its mission. He and his partners are product people, so why not develop some pet products to sell, they thought. Still under a non-compete agreement with Natural Balance’s purchasers, Lucy Pet started with a line of shampoos targeted to millennial pet owners, then followed up last year with a unique cat litter using patent-pending technology from Dow.

When the company was ready to get back into pet food, Herrick didn’t want to create another line like everything already on the market. He came upon research on prebiotics and fibers from George Fahey, PhD, of the University of Illinois’ Department of Animal Sciences. Working with Fahey, Lucy Pet developed its Life brand of dry pet food based on a precise combination and amount of diverse fibers to achieve optimum gut health.

Herrick’s focus is still his foundation and its mission; and his passion happens to align nicely with pet owners’ growing preference for companies and brands that can prove a commitment to pets, other animals and the environment. Though it doesn’t overtly promote its causes, BrightPet Nutrition Group told me about its Canine Program, which offers free vouchers for its Adirondack and Blackwood brands to any police department or similar program in the US with service dogs (such as the Montana Ski Patrol). The program also supports local pet retailers where the vouchers are redeemed – and support of independent pet retailers was a key theme at GPE this year.

Another example of a company capitalizing on the cause-related trend is Merrick, with its new Pristine line under the Castor Pollux brand featuring “responsibly” sourced, raised and grown ingredients. This trend is especially popular with millennials, which is I and Love and You’s target market – and that company is upping its appeal by becoming one of the first whose products bear certification from the Clean Label Project, a new non-profit aiming to provide third-party verification of testing for more than 100 environmental and industrial contaminants. The first two industries being tested are pet and baby food; among 2,000 pet foods tested, I and Love and You’s products rated in the top 2 percent, the company said.

Year of the cat

In what it’s terming its first wave of innovation for the year, Solid Gold introduced new dry foods for indoor cats, plus wet cat foods featuring coconut oil, building on the company’s launch last year of pates with coconut milk for cats. (Coconut oil is becoming a popular pet food ingredient, judging by other new products at GPE.)

Solid Gold is not the only company focusing on cats: WellPet is reorganizing and relaunching (in some cases, reformulating) its entire line of cat food, in what it’s calling the “year of the cat.” And Nestlé Purina, as part of a nine-year study investigating if the ingredients in its Pro Plan Bright Minds dog food could also help cognition in older cats, discovered that cats benefited physically from the ingredients, in terms of longevity and quality of life. Thus was born Pro Plan PrimePlus, which offers higher protein to prevent weight loss, plus boosts for the immune and digestive systems, and skin and coat.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com

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