Digestive health demands for pets are growing. Are your products ready?

Chad Wethal | 9 June, 2020

variety of pet food

Several ingredients are available to support pet digestive health in pet food and treats, including tried-and-true solutions and newer innovations

As pet consumers continue to value quality ingredients for their pets, the competition to deliver unique and novel premium pet food and treats has never been fiercer. The combination of pets living longer lives and pet consumers more closely scrutinising what goes into their pets’ diets is driving a key trend in the industry: functional nutrition.

According to Mintel’s Global New Product Database, amongst the fastest growing claims within the pet food functional nutrition category is digestive health. Between 2015 and 2019, new product launches that included a digestive health functional claim increased by 54%.

Recent research suggests that pet microbiomes function more similarly to the human microbiome than once thought. This provides a pathway for pet food manufacturers to optimise pet diets with ingredients commonly included to support human digestive health and explore new frontiers to fuel future innovation pipelines. Here, we explore two promising ingredients for pet digestive health: probiotics and postbiotics.

Probiotics: A trusted, time-tested solution

“Probiotics are the preferred choice to help support pet digestive health because they are widely used and accepted by consumers in their own foods and beverages,” says Erik Bauer, Senior Technical Services Manager for Kerry’s ProActive Health division. “When it comes to driving preference amongst pet consumers, developing messages and claims that are easy to understand and have a clear promise is key.”

Completing the journey from raw material to the pet’s gut is a key challenge for many probiotics. To ensure the guaranteed level of live microorganisms reach the gut at efficacious levels, Bauer advises pet food manufacturers to consider the following and identify a partner with a successful track record of supporting pet food customers with in-house probiotic and pet food industry expertise.

  • Survivability: To reach a pet’s gut, live microorganisms must first survive harsh manufacturing processes. Those that do must then weather transport and shelf life before finally withstanding stomach acid, bile acids and low pH during digestion. Achieving optimal survivability at each stage of the journey is critical to mitigate claim risk by delivering the expected level of living microorganisms to the gut listed on the label.

  • Type of probiotic: Two types of probiotics are commonly used in the pet food industry.
    • Lactic acid bacteria: Strains such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are commonly found in fermented foods such as yoghurt. They help keep pH low in the gut, limiting the growth of harmful pathogens, but can be difficult to handle and have subpar survivability rates due to sensitivities to light, heat and stomach acid.

    • Spore-forming: The protective shell surrounding spore-forming probiotics such as Bacillus coagulans shields the living microorganisms as they pass through each stage of the journey, from processing through digestive transit. This protection allows spore-forming probiotics to better make their way to the gut intact and able to deliver their intended benefits.
  • Colony-Forming Units: The level of live microorganisms expected within a probiotic are measured as colony-forming units (CFUs), or the number of live microorganisms capable of dividing and forming colonies. When it comes to CFUs, more isn’t always better, as some probiotic strains are able to deliver their targeted response at lower CFU levels. Minimum CFU doses in a product can also vary between countries. Review regulatory guidelines with your probiotic supplier to help ensure your product meets minimum requirements to support digestive health claims.

  • Multi-strain vs. single-strain: To date, little evidence supports whether multi-strain probiotics offer benefits over a single-strain solution. In fact, some experts believe that multiple strains can be disadvantageous, as multiple bacteria could be cancelling out each other’s benefits. For now, both appear to be effective, so long as ingredients are backed by sound research demonstrating their specific benefits.
Postbiotics: A potential rising star

“As consumers continue to seek out new and novel ingredients, pet food manufacturers need to be on the hunt for the next pet consumer-influenced trend,” says Cynthia Rasmussen, Business Development Manager for fermented ingredients with Kerry. For the pet food and treat industry, this could be postbiotics.

The definition of postbiotics is still new and evolving, however Nutra Ingredients USA describes postbiotics as bioactive compounds produced by food-grade microorganisms during a fermentation process. This includes the non-viable microbial cells, cell constituents and metabolites. “Postbiotics are an exciting area around gut health because they can potentially provide similar beneficial effects as probiotics but without the survivability hurdles that living microorganisms can present,” says Rasmussen.

Food and beverage consumer interest in postbiotics is surging. A recent Mintel report showed a 91% increase in searches for postbiotics in human products between 2018 and 2019. Based on this growing interest amongst consumers, rewards could be in store for pet food manufacturers early to adopt this new ingredient trend for improving pet gut health.

According to Rasmussen, potential advantages of postbiotics for pet food manufacturers may include:

  • Reduced survivability challenges. Since postbiotics consist of non-living microorganisms, survivability challenges such as high heat, high salt formulas, long shelf-life, harsh GI tracts, etc., can possibly be avoided.

  • Specificity and control of targeted benefits. Postbiotics can help take the guesswork out of delivering a specific health response. A good analogy when thinking about postbiotics is comparing them to vegetables found at the grocery store. With postbiotics, we’ve already planted the seed, harvested the food and brought it to the store shelf so the shopper knows exactly what they are purchasing.

  • Differentiation within the pet wellness and health market. With the lag time between human food trends and pet food trends shrinking, pet food manufacturers that include postbiotics, either alone or in combination with other effective ‘biotic’ ingredients, could better catch the attention of the growing population of health-conscious pet consumers.

  • Customisation for specific challenges. Although postbiotics are still in the early stages of use, some exciting areas to explore in this space include the potential to help maintain a healthy digestive system during periods of stress or help older pets maintain optimal nutrient absorption as they age.

Finding a partner that understands the complexities of the pet food industry and the technical components of ingredients is critical in bridging the nutrition gap between pets and people. For more ways to grow your business with functional ingredients, download our e-book Pet Food with a Purpose: How to Win with Functional Nutrition. To learn more about our portfolio of pet wellness and nutrition solutions, contact us.