HOME>NEWS>Marketing Ingredients versus Marketing Nutrition in Pet Products By: Dr George Collings
Marketing Ingredients versus Marketing Nutrition in Pet Products By: Dr George Collings
PublishDate:2015/9/2 15:21:18

Pet product marketing messages have varied dramatically during the thirty years I have been in the pet business. They have focused upon the product type (premium, super-premium, holistic, natural, organic), palatability, the nutritional levels, the health focus (digestion, hair coat, dental), the ingredient quality (human edible, organic, natural) and ingredient types (grains, plant proteins, by-products, meat proteins).


Marketing messages have become increasingly focused more on what ingredients are ‘not’ in the product versus a discussion of the nutrition, quality and health focus. It is an easier message to communicate. In some cases, specific ingredients have been so demonized as nutritionally evil that they are now almost ‘forbidden’ in any new products. The increase in the humanization of pets has brought even more attention to using ingredients ‘like we eat’ in our pet’s food. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this, but building a good sound nutritional product becomes more difficult and very expensive.


How did we get here?

•  It is easier to talk about ingredients than nutritional principles.

•  It is easier to talk about what you do not have than what you do have.

•  It is easier to connect a consumer to a familiar food ingredient.

During the fast growth of super-premium pet foods that started in the 1980s, many new brands were launched. Each of these brands had a specific marketing position. Many focused on the ingredients used to help separate the new brand from existing brands. For instance: our food is made ‘with real chicken’, ‘with rice’ or ‘with added oils’. The negative side was also added: our food is made ‘without corn’ or ‘without by-products’ or ‘without soybean’. As newer food categories were added (natural, organic, holistic, etc.), these ingredient messages (both positive and negative) increased. Our food ‘uses vegetables and fruits,’ ‘uses no grains’, ‘uses only edible ingredients’ or ‘is all-natural’. This focus on ingredient messages has led to less communication about nutrition and health. Specific nutritional claims were much more difficult to pass regulatory approval. Blogs, which have brought new levels of communication, also expanded confusion and misinformation dramatically.

Choosing the right ingredients to meet the nutritional profile, cost parameters and product claims is an important first step in building a product. The real performance difference is always found in the nutritional balance and careful limits of ingredients and nutrients. Positive and negative ingredient messages are always easier to communicate to consumers.



Today, there are products that are grain-based and products that are grain-free in the market. Basically, this contrasts products with corn, wheat, rice, oats, and barley versus products with potato, pea, tapioca and sweet potato. Nutritionally, the important question is whether the starch is cooked sufficiently and how does the starch impact digestion. In the 1990s, marketing messages about corn stated that it was ‘hard to digest’ and caused ‘hot spots’ in dogs. A Journal of Nutrition study reported that dogs could digest 98% of the corn starch in a diet which countered the negative claims. However, the negativity about corn has reduced the use of corn in pet products exclusively to premium and value products.

Another marketing message stated that wheat caused allergies uniformly in all dogs. The acceptance of this marketing message varied from country to country, but was not based upon specific facts. It led to a series of ‘wheat-free’ diets. Rice, a highly digestible grain, was being replaced by other grains (oats, oatmeal, barley, millet) for similar marketing reasons. These alternate grains are sometimes over-formulated which has led to stool upsets due to high levels of beta-glucan or specific fibres. The movement towards starches like potato, pea and tapioca has further complicated production efficiencies while offering limited nutrition and health improvements. The reality is that many carbohydrate sources can be used without complication if formulated correctly to a reasonable level and if well cooked and manufactured.


Plant proteins

In Nutrition 101, each new student learns that plant proteins are not ‘complete’proteins as they are limited by one or more essential amino acids. Animal proteins are complete proteins as all essential amino acids are present at adequate levels. Egg protein is the biological standard by which all proteins are compared. Soybean protein has been shown to be very useful in human nutrition as it is digestible and offers many health benefits such as lowering cholesterol. The use of soybean meal in pet foods was said to cause digestive issues. The reality is that soybean meal contains two specific sugars called stachyose and raffinose, which in high enough levels can lead to gas (flatulence). If used correctly, this problem

‘gas’ can be limited. This ‘digestion’ problem has limited soybean meal in pet foods, but in reality, it is a digestible, reasonably priced protein.



The term ‘by-product’ was originally defined by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as a ‘secondary product produced in addition to the principal product’. As an example, as fish fillets were processed for the human food market, the remaining fish parts would be a by-product to that industry. These dried parts were named fish meal. However, AFFCO complicated this by naming some by-products as ‘meals’ and other as ‘by-products’ (chicken meal versus chicken

by-product meal). Some marketing messages have focused on ‘no by-products’ which plays on these mistaken terms. This same definition of by-product has not been accepted worldwide thus complicating marketing messages in many brands. The reality is that many by-product meals are more consistent in nutritional content, but are avoided because of the mistaken term.



For years, dried beet pulp was the ‘great equalizer’ in digestion for just about every type of animal. Adding beet pulp in sufficient quantity increased the likelihood of a formed stool. Some have marketed that beet pulp causes a red hair coat among other things. The reality is that beet pulp stands above all other fibres in its capacity to help digestion.

Similar misinformation has been seen with mineral chelates, certain vitamins and meat proteins. Whether we are focusing on natural, organic, human edible products; the ingredients have become the issue. Good ingredients of exceptional quality and consistency are important, but as a board certified nutritionist, my perspective is that the real importance is the nutritional content and balance, the quality, and the long-term health of our pets.