Limited-ingredient pet diets may still not be entirely mainstream, but awareness of these formulas is growing rapidly among dog owners, particularly the increasing number of shoppers who seek diets and treats made with natural ingredients they can easily identify. Consequently, limited-ingredient diets—which typically offer just one protein source per formula and eschew additives, artificial ingredients and fillers—are drawing a fair amount of attention from pet owners.
Another factor contributing to this category’s rising popularity is consumer focus on the connection between health and diet. To this end, more pet owners are turning to limited-ingredient diets, especially since these formulas enable them to readily understand exactly what they’re feeding their pets, says Rashell Cooper, marketing director for Redbarn Pet Products, LLC, a Long Beach, Calif.-based manufacturer of natural pet foods, treats and chews.
Adding additional fire to the interest is the fact that these diets often offer an ideal solution for dogs beset with allergies and food sensitivities, says Missy Werges, senior brand manager for Nature’s Variety Inc. Located in St. Louis, the company produces raw and raw-inspired dog and cat foods through two brands—Instinct and Prairie.
“Food sensitivities can be caused by protein, so for some pets it’s important to limit the number of protein sources in a diet,” Werges explains. “This is especially true as many products blend multiple proteins per formula, making it difficult for pet parents to avoid specific proteins that don’t work for their pets.”
A blend of proteins also makes it challenging for dog owners to identify which particular protein is causing the issue. In some cases, dogs can react problematically to common proteins like chicken or beef—the thought is that consuming these over a period of time can cause the animal to become sensitive to it, manifesting that sensitivity in various ways, such as skin, coat or joint issues, or tummy troubles. This is why many limited-ingredient formulas incorporate more exotic proteins not generally found in traditional pet foods, like duck, rabbit, bison, kangaroo and so on. Dogs have not become sensitive to these proteins and tend to tolerate and digest them easily, says Werges.
An additional appeal of these diets is that, thanks to their higher protein levels and simple formulations, they’re thought to more closely mimic the way dogs would eat in the wild, which growing numbers of pet owners feel is a more natural way to feed.
That this category is still somewhat flying under the radar spells good opportunity for pet specialty retailers willing to put the time and effort into promoting these products and educating their customers. For one thing, the aforementioned food sensitivities are becoming increasingly prevalent, says Lucy Postins, founder and CEO of The Honest Kitchen, a San Diego-based producer of human-grade, dehydrated whole pet foods, treats and supplements.
At the same time, says Postins, the ability to identify food sensitivities has improved, thanks to in-home test kits and veterinary diagnostic tests that have become more widely available. This has had the effect of galvanizing interest in limited-ingredient options as pet owners learn and see first-hand how these products can bring about a positive change in their pet’s health and well-being.
Demand & Opportunity
Although limited-ingredient formulas can be a bit pricier compared to conventional options, they can in some sense pay for themselves. According to Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager of communications for Tewksbury, Mass.-based Wellness Natural Pet Food/WellPet, LLC, as pet owners become more educated about food allergies, they’re bringing their dogs to vets for treatment of these issues—never an inexpensive proposition. Once a food sensitivity has been identified, limited-ingredient options may provide the ideal remedy, she says.
Consequently, this category offers decided sales potential. “With an increased demand and an increasing awareness of the symptoms of pet food sensitivities and intolerances, we expect to see a growing market for limited-ingredient and single-source protein recipes for both dogs and cats,” Leary-Coutu says.
Sales & Satisfaction
“Education is key when considering sales of limited-ingredient foods and treats,” says Cooper. “Working alongside manufacturers to develop and display educational materials at point-of-purchase is paramount to increasing sales.”
Also essential to store sales and customer satisfaction is the proper training and education of store associates, who should be able to speak knowledgeably with customers about the benefits of limited-ingredient diets as well as about the various active ingredients intended to address specific health issues, Cooper says.
But this education can be a two-way street, she adds, because many pet specialty retailers are lucky enough to have an educated and well-researched customer base. “Those retailers who listen to these consumers and provide a variety of diet options will have the advantage over the ones who don’t,” Cooper says.
Retailers should also ask their customers what they’re currently feeding their pets and if they might consider other alternatives, says Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, Inc., a San Francisco-based company that produces raw frozen and freeze-dried formulas, raw frozen supplemental foods, along with various pet treats. If the pet owner indicates he or she is open to different options, retailers should take advantage of the opportunity to talk about limited-ingredient diets and the variety of formats these come in, including raw frozen and freeze-dried, he says.
They should also take pains to educate customers that not all limited-ingredient formulas are comparable, Koss cautions. “Even though certain products are labeled as limited-ingredient, such ingredients as wheat, corn, soy and even rice are not properly digested by dogs and cats,” he explains. “Thus, products containing these ingredients should not be considered nutritionally sound.”
Postins says that as the demand for limited-ingredient options has picked up steam, with these formulas finding increasing favor with consumers, some manufacturers have applied the label to products that really don’t qualify, seeing this as a marketing advantage. One factor contributing to this problem is that there’s no real definition of what constitutes “limited-ingredient,” she says, adding that she feels the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) should work on this. Consequently, some companies are promoting recipes with as many as 20 ingredients; hardly qualifying as limited in Postin’s book.
It’s also helpful to educate customers about spotting symptoms of food allergies and intolerances in their pets, says Leary-Coutu, calling this one of the most impactful merchandising practices. She suggests using displays or materials featuring graphics of these problems to better help customers recognize these issues.
Other strategies that could help boost sales include:
• Creating a dedicated section for limited-ingredient foods and treats, says Koss. This will be “hugely beneficial to sales, particularly if it’s used as the go-to area for customers coming in with dogs who have food-related health issues,” says Postins.
• Offering multiple formats—dry, canned, raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated—so that customers have sufficient choice is also essential, Koss says.
• Displaying these items with the appropriate educational materials, says Cooper. “Also, use different sections of your store to highlight different diet types,” she adds. “Using an endcap, featuring a diet as a product-of-the-month and moving limited-ingredient diets to the front of the store all work to aid pet specialty retailers.”
• Asking engaging questions in order to direct customers to the right choices. Cooper suggests inquiring about allergies and food sensitivities, any concerns the owner has about the pet’s health, the pet’s activity level and if the pet seems to have a favorite protein.
It’s important to understand that just because a product is a limited-ingredient formula doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be right for a specific dog, says Postins. “For example, a limited-ingredient diet made with chicken is of no use for a dog with poultry allergies. If no food-sensitivity testing has been done, the store can guide the owner in an elimination diet to help identify the foods that will and won’t work for that dog.”
Werges advises pet specialty retailers to prepare themselves for increased demand as more consumers become aware of these kinds of solutions for digestive upsets and other sensitivity-related issues.
“At the same time,” she says, “as protein co-mingling and use of exotic proteins become more prevalent in everyday food, the need for single-protein, limited-ingredient diets will grow as pet parents seek out proteins their pets are not sensitive to.”