A Plant-based Pet Food Frenzy is on the Horizon

Chad Wethal | 26 October, 2020

dog looking at bowl of plant-based pet food

Brands and manufacturers can prepare today to meet future plant-based pet food demands

The plant-based food movement is surging. With pet food trends closely following human food and beverage trends, plant-based ingredients and plant-based protein are a trending topic amongst pet food manufacturing professionals and becoming more mainstream in the pet food market.

Here’s what we know about human plant-based food consumption, according to the Plant Based Foods Association and SPINS® data, which is already being echoed in the pet food market:

  • U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew more than 5 times faster than all food in 2019.
  • Plant-based meat adoption is particularly accelerating, seeing an 18.4% rise in retail sales versus a 2.7% increase in conventional meat during the same time period.
  • COVID-19 kicked plant-based adoption into overdrive, with plant-based foods growing 35% faster than all food in the four weeks following U.S. COVID-19 case spikes in mid-March 2020.
  • Also following the U.S. COVID-19 case spike, plant-based meat saw a retail increase 50% higher than conventional meat.

Plant-based diets are on pet owners’ minds

A 2019 study, “Plant-based (vegan) diets for pets: A survey of pet owner attitudes and feeding practice,” from the journal PLOS ONE, affirms the plant-based pet food trend is growing because pet owners are more likely to consume a meatless diet themselves. Further, protein preferences in dog and cat food diets have been shown to closely mimic those of their vegan or vegetarian owners, with more of these owners opting to feed their pets a diet consisting of plant protein.

With up to 12% of pet owners identifying as vegan or vegetarian, there could be up to 22 million vegan or vegetarian pet owners in the U.S. alone based on current U.S. pet ownership data.

Opportunities in this space aren’t limited to vegan and vegetarian pet owners, however, as roughly a quarter of consumers that identify as omnivores would consider feeding their dog a plant-based diet if one were available that met their criteria. A recent Mintel UK Pet Food Market Report supports this trend, as a third (34%) of UK dog food buyers believe that a plant-based diet is better for their dog than a meat-based diet. These numbers can be expected to see significant growth in the coming years as more plant-based foods and plant-based meats become available.

Purchase drivers and hurdles for plant-based pet diets

Pet owners may consider a plant-based diet for their pets for many reasons. However, concerns about existing meat-based options are the leading driver of switching to a plant-based pet food. The leading concern with meat-based pet food diets is farm animal welfare and rights. Unsurprisingly, most pet owners are animal-lovers and are more likely to place a high value on the humane and ethical treatment of animals raised for food production. An unhealthy perception of meat along with environmental and sustainability concerns over animal protein production are also strong growth drivers promoting plant-based pet food.

While plant-based pet foods have momentum, there are some hurdles to clear before achieving mainstream availability and acceptance.

The PLOS ONE study found that nutritional completeness is the leading challenge with plant-based pet food, with nearly three quarters of pet owners flagging this concern. However, providing strong evidence of nutritional sufficiency and buy-in from veterinarians were cited as opportunities to lessen nutritional completeness concerns. Finding a partner that can help optimize plant-based pet food protein with nutrients such as vitamin and mineral fortification and supplementation of the limiting amino acid (methionine, lysine, Tryptophan, etc.) can help to address these concerns. Cost is another hurdle, with vegan pet foods retailing at upwards of twice as much per pound when compared to super premium meat-based counterparts. Thirdly, many plant protein bases require additional ingredient labeling, driving concerns that plant-based pet food carries an unnatural halo.

Innovate to meet expectations for pets and pet owners

A key challenge with plant-based pet food, particularly in North America, is that the most cost-effective plant-protein bases are soy or wheat and most pet owners who purchase super premium pet food prefer grain-free options. To this end, pea proteins are helping fill this gap. As more legumes are finding their way into pet foods, peas are gaining significant traction as a go-to plant-protein source for pet food manufacturers because of their versatility and adaptability into most pet food manufacturing processes.

As with any other pet food, palatability performance is critical. Recent data released by Kerry shows that achieving palatability performance using plant-based ingredients can be achieved. This data shows that unique plant-based natural flavours can deliver palatability performance on par with traditional meat digests. Tapping into taste masking and modulation technologies can also help plant-protein bases deliver the primal, meaty aroma and palatability that pets crave.

Pet owners seeking plant ingredients in their pet’s diet still want a product that delivers a similar aroma and texture as conventional meat-based products. Enhancing plant-based protein with savoury natural flavours can be an effective way to deliver the aromatic experience pet owners expect. Optimal pet food texture can also be achieved by working with a partner that has a range of integrated plant-based ingredient solutions and understands how to incorporate these proteins into pet food formulas.

Developing a plant-based meat alternative often requires additional ingredients be added to the ingredient deck. With the industry focus on shortening ingredient labels, adding more ingredients can be a concern. One effective strategy to keep plant-based pet food ingredient labels brief is opting for kitchen-friendly ingredients such as celery, dairy and vinegar over synthetic options to help extend freshness over shelf life, naturally.

Given the strong consumer trend toward plant-based food, it isn’t a matter of whether plant-based pet foods will go mainstream, it’s a matter of when. Be prepared for the plant-based pet food boom by finding a partner that understands the technology behind plant-based ingredients and how they can be optimised for use into pet food manufacturing processes.

To learn more about Kerry’s portfolio of pet wellness and nutrition solutions, visit our pet nutrition section.