Tell your dog to get ready for quinoa kibble.
Pet food trends are following their owners' tastes. Even meat-loving brands are marketing plants, the very ingredients they once sidelined - just not the traditional high-protein soybean and corn-gluten meals.
Instead, Blue Buffalo Co. Ltd. offers a Chicken & Quinoa Ancient Grains recipe, and a grain-free line from Nestle Purina Petcare Co.'s Beneful now is "accented with blueberries, pumpkin and spinach." Honest Kitchen Inc., which uses only human-grade ingredients, has been selling its Chicken & Quinoa recipe since 2006 and now offers Beef & Chickpea, Duck & Sweet Potato, and Fish & Coconut blends.
Dogs aren't wolves, after all. They're omnivores, said Anna-Kate Shoveller, an assistant professor of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph in Canada. "They do quite well on a vegetable-based or a lower-protein diet," she said.
The animal nutrition researcher has been experimenting with and publishing on feeding vegetables to domestic dogs. And despite recent documentaries and marketing trends, Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels and the rest of the nearly 70 million dogs living in U.S. homes do not need to be fed like wild beasts.
Consider the nearly $30 billion pet food market's second- and third-most-popular dog food brands: the relative newcomer Blue Buffalo, whose "farm-to-table inspired canine cuisine" features a portrait of a wolf on each bag of its Wilderness line, and Beneful, whose bags brag of "real" chicken, beef and salmon as "the #1 ingredient." Together, the brands sold more than $2.3 billion of dog chow last year. (Pedigree, Mars Inc.'s budget-friendly brand, was the top-selling dog food in the country in 2016, pulling in $1.6 billion, according to Euromonitor.)
Blue Buffalo has played the healthy-wolf card better than any other company, despite admitting in a lawsuit that its ingredients weren't always as marketed. Founded in 2002, it commanded 7.5 percent of the U.S. dog food market last year, making it the nation's fifth-largest seller. That's small compared with Nestle Purina, No. 1 at 23.5 percent but down from 26.8 percent in 2011, according to Euromonitor.
If there's a mythos around meat, plants come with their own presumptions. The industry's pivot back to plants, if only certain ones, seems a bit silly to experts, at least from a nutrition point of view.
"If soy is bad, why is pea good?" asked Ryan Yamka, an animal nutritionist certified by the American College of Animal Sciences, as well as founder and independent consultant with Luna Science and Nutrition. "It all comes down to marketing," he said.
Dogs don't shop
U.S. pet food falls under a mix of federal and state regulations. For assurance that a food meets pets' nutritional needs, look for the "Complete and Balanced" nutritional adequacy statement on the package. It's based on the dog or cat food nutrient profiles set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials and guarantees that the food is nutritionally balanced. Aafco has no enforcement power, but most commercial pet foods sold online comply with its profiles, no matter what their ingredients.
"Pets don't need ingredients; they need nutrients," said Mary Emma Young, spokeswoman at the Pet Food Institute, the industry's trade group. They also need to be able to digest the nutrients and to like the food, or they won't eat it.
While no shortage of consumers, bloggers and competitors question the safety and health of mass-produced pet foods, especially since the massive 2007 recall after the poisoning of thousands of pets, the industry puts significant resources into research to meet Aafco guidelines. Nestle Purina alone has more than 500 scientists on staff, including food scientists, nutritionists and veterinarians.
Shoveller recently conducted a study comparing the palatability and digestibility of animal-and vegetable-based diets. The results "suggest that dogs do not have an innate preference for animal or vegetable ingredient-based diets," she and several other researchers wrote in a published study. For digestibility, her team examined the feces of eight adult beagles to determine how much of the foods' mineral content had been digested.
"All dogs had great stools on both diets," she said.
Although the study was small, Shoveller said, "if there is a vegetable-based formula that meets the Aafco targets, it would be entirely safe to feed it to your dog."
So pet food companies can formulate nutritionally sound diets from non-sexy plant ingredients: Corn and soy would suffice. Fancy grains are just better attention grabbers.
"The reality is that the dogs and cats don't get to push the grocery carts and pay for the food," said Daniel Smith, vice president of research and development at Nestle Purina Petcare Ptc. "We have to be sensitive to what the owners choices are and deliver what the dog or cat enjoys."
Oh yes, cats
As "obligate carnivores," cats need certain amino acids available only in meat. They're also pickier eaters.
"We have tried to do vegetable- or plant-based proteins and supplement them with some synthetic amino acids," Smith said. "But then we run into another problem: Cats won't eat it. Dogs are less judicious."