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Plant-based Pet Food Trends and Solutions

Ruben Santana, Global Pet R&D Director, Kerry | 13 January, 2021

puppy eating kibble

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

There are many reasons pet owners opt for plant-based pet food options, spanning from concerns over animal welfare and sustainability to the perceived health benefits of a plant-based diet. But one thing all pet owners seek is a diet their pets enjoy that is designed to keep them healthy and thriving.

Demand for plant-based pet food is expected to continue. Manufacturers are responding to this rise with an advancement in technology. Here are some considerations for brands trying to keep up with the plant-based pet food frenzy and deliver a pet food experience on par with a traditional meat-based diet.

Plant protein ingredient trends and outlook

Historically, soy, corn protein (corn gluten meal) and wheat protein (gluten) have been the dominant plant proteins used for pet food. However, in recent years additional plant protein ingredients have become increasingly viable options. These include pea protein, potato protein and rice protein.

The plant-based food trend within the food and beverage industry has begun to unlock more options for pet owners seeking to add plants to their pets’ diets. Over the next two to three years, we anticipate plant protein innovations in pet food formulas to accelerate. For example, we’ve seen ingredients such as corn protein, rice protein and fava bean protein begin to emerge in the pet food market.

Looking further ahead, as ingredient suppliers ramp up production capacity and efficiencies, we expect a diverse mix of novel plant proteins to hit pet food bowls around the globe. Based on human food and beverage trends, plant protein ingredients on the pet food horizon include hemp protein, oat protein, bean protein, mung bean protein, sunflower protein, canola protein and brown rice protein, to name a few.

Choose the right plant protein for the job

Not all plant proteins are created equally. Choosing the optimal plant protein for pet food diets should be driven by the goal of the finished product.

For pet food manufacturers seeking to enhance the heartiness of their wet pet food diets, plant proteins that can stand up to retort processes are ideal. Soy or pea proteins offer a functional benefit: they maintain firmness through harsh retorting more effectively than even meat ingredients.

In other cases, plant protein blends can be a compelling option. Pure soy, for example, can create a chewy, rubbery texture. However, utilizing a combination of proteins, such as soy and pea protein, can help achieve more muscle striation which results in a softer finished product with a more appealing mouthfeel.

Consider consumer segment and pet species

If the goal of a finished product is to tap into the growing plant-based food movement, a consideration should be made in whether it is necessary to go all-in on a vegan diet or if a vegetarian or plant-forward diet will achieve the same level of consumer interest.

The rise in plant-based human food is not driven by a rise in veganism, but rather meat eaters who are opting to add more plants to their diet, also known as ‘flexitarians’. If the goal is to adapt a pet food formula that appeals to the rising flexitarian consumer, a vegan product may not be necessary. If consumers simply want more plant protein or more sustainable protein sources, consider a mixed animal and plant protein solution. For example, a pea protein and egg protein combination could be a viable solution for many pet diets.

Pet species is another critical factor in deciding which plant protein or combination of plant proteins to consider. When thinking about plant protein ingredients, the animal’s nutritional needs take priority, but pet food manufacturers should also consider how plant proteins impact the appeal of the finished product.

It is well known that dogs prefer harder meat analogues/emulates. The ‘meat’ chunks for dogs can also be larger, typically a half-inch in diameter or less. For this reason, a plant protein that maintains firmness through the finished product—such as soy protein or pea protein—should be considered. On the other hand, cats crave the juiciness of real meat and are prone to play with large chunks of food. For cats, multiple proteins are often used to allow for more muscle striation, which makes the finished product easier to chew.

Solving common plant protein challenges

While consumers are often drawn to new and novel ingredients, working with lesser known ingredients often requires additional technologies to help solve taste and texture challenges. They often require additional technologies to balance taste and texture challenges. For example, many plant proteins are notorious for their unappealing “green” taste. To help overcome potential palatability performance issues, consider incorporating taste masking technologies or unique plant-based palatability solutions to build the meaty aroma pets enjoy.

Stability over shelf-life is another key challenge to consider when formulating with plant proteins. This is particularly critical when working with dry diets, since plant proteins are known to develop unappealing flavour notes over long periods of time. Natural food preservation ingredients can be an effective solution for plant-based products: they help keep label decks free from chemical ingredients while maintaining fresh taste and colour over shelf-life.

Nutritional completeness can be another hurdle to clear when incorporating plant proteins into pet food diets. Most plant proteins do not include essential amino acids, such as methionine and cystine, at the necessary level. To make up this gap, multiple plant proteins are often used. However, each time a new plant protein is added, the specific ingredient brings along additional taste and texture challenges. This makes working with plant proteins a difficult puzzle to solve. In cases where formulating with multiple plant proteins is needed, working with a holistic partner who understands plant proteins and their specific application into various pet food processes is a critical first step.

To learn more about Kerry’s complete portfolio of plant protein pet food ingredient solutions, visit our Pet Nutrition section. To speak with one of our experts about finding the right plant protein for your product, contact us.