WWalking down the food aisle of a pet store, customers are faced with a variety of options. With the eye-catching pictures and descriptions on the packages, some parents might rush to read the nutrition label on the back of the bag, but lately, many have taken the time to look at it.
“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in consumers diving deeper to get a better understanding of the ingredient palette,” says Danielle Opitz, companion animal nutritionist at Fromm Family Foods. “They tend to look for functional and ‘healthy’ ingredients, as well as look for specific nutrient values as stated in the foolproof analysis (eg: high protein, low fat, etc.) and nutrition instructions to find the best match. nutritional needs of their pets.
Every customer is different, and everyone has a different motivation for visiting the pet store, which will likely play a role in how important it is to them to check the nutrition label.
“Depending on what a pet parent brought into the store on a given day, their diligence in consulting the product label may vary,” says Heather Acuff, PhD, director of research and development at Nulo. “For example, first-time pet owners looking for the right food to start their new best friend are more likely to be novice label readers and gravitate toward the main benefits of one product than another.
“On the other hand, seasoned parents of pets who are researching new products due to food sensitivities, gastrointestinal issues, or other common issues are likely to be more familiar with interpreting labels and checking them closely for technical and nutritional content.”
Regardless of being a novice or seasoned pet parent, many customers may pay more attention to nutrition labels after events that may have discredited certain foods or ingredients, such as when the 2007 pet food recalls gained popularity.
‘Customers are more aware [of the importance of reading nutrition labels] says Dr. Bob Goldstein, co-founder of Earth Animal.
Dr. Ryan Yamka, founder of Luna Science and Nutrition, also stresses the importance of encouraging customers to try different brands that offer the same nutritional value as others. By understanding the nutrition label, retailers should be able to identify alternatives to a particular diet to move the customer from brand X to brand Y, if necessary. This way, if recall or supply chain issues arise, parents can easily switch to a different product.
With these considerations in mind, there are a few key elements that retailers and their customers should look for when checking a pet food nutrition label.
What are you looking for
To start, there are basic guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)—every pet food product needs to list protein, fiber, fat and moisture content. To sell a specific product in any given condition, manufacturers need to meet that state’s specific AAFCO guidelines, as well as feature an ingredient panel, guaranteed analysis, calorie content, nutrition trial/chart, and nutrition adequacy statement.
“The most important information for a customer, regarding a nutrition plate, tends to be the nutrition instructions, calorie content, and ingredient list,” Opitz says.
Of course, it goes without saying that the ingredients list is a great place to start when customers are trying to figure out how to read nutrition labels.
“Owns [pet parents] Read the first eight labels on the surface of the ingredients,” says Mary Helen Horn, President and CEO of ZIWI. “It’s the best thing you can ever do. The first five ingredients make up 80 percent of the product.”
Since protein is one of the most important elements in a pet’s diet, Horn suggests trying to figure out where the majority of a product’s protein comes from, based on the first two ingredients. Animals should receive the majority of their protein through specific animal meat sources (not unnamed sources), she says.
It’s also important to note that in some cases, companies will split ingredients, even if two different ingredients are connected or offer the same nutritional benefits. For example, Horn says seeing beef liver, beef organ or beef heart in the first couple of ingredients is indicative of a high-protein diet. Ingredient breakdowns can also be negative, for example when they indicate that there is not enough variety within the product.
Challenges with Nutrition Labels
Of course, one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to nutrition labels is getting customers to see beyond the marketing jargon and fluffy words used to describe the foods on many pet packages. Many of the claims, such as “natural”, “organic” and “human grade” do not reveal anything about the true nutritional value of the product.
When pet parents consult a nutrition label, it can be frightening to see so many ingredients they don’t understand.
“Pet food labels can be difficult to read because they look different from the labels we see on human food, and people are more familiar with these labels,” says Dr. Darcia Kostyuk, chief veterinarian at ORIJEN and ACANA Pet Food.
For example, humans have a standard 2,000-calorie diet, which is an obvious measure that most people will recognize. Humans also tend to ebb and flow when it comes to their diet, eating a healthy meal and then moving on to a more caloric meal afterward. On the other hand, pets are not exposed to a great deal of diversity, which makes the nutritional content you consume on a daily basis all the more important.
“If pet parents read the general analysis and don’t understand what certain nutrients are or are missing, their pets may be missing out on these nutrients twice daily for many years,” Horn says.
Another way pet food labels differ from those on human nutrition products is that carbohydrates are not included in the pet food and customers must perform an equation to roughly measure the number of carbohydrates in the product. However, this may change as the AAFCO meets each year to discuss pet food regulations.
“The good news is that there are regulatory changes planned to make pet food labels more consumer friendly, which will be beneficial for pet lovers who want the best for their pets and will also ensure that the pet food industry is transparent,” says Dr. Kostyuk.
“I think this will be a game changer in the pet world and will be really beneficial for the dog and cat,” adds Horn, who says the AAFCO is also considering updating its position when it comes to terms like “natural” or “human grade” to make sure clients understand a point. Differentiation and what such terms really mean.
How retailers can help
Even with knowing what to look for on a nutrition label, it can still be difficult for customers to understand how beneficial the ingredients are for their specific pets. As such, they will turn to trusted retailers for guidance.
“We find, especially for neighborhood pet stores and independent pet slide, that customers seek advice and a more intimate buying experience achieved for knowledgeable retailers,” Opitz says. “A store that has a good working knowledge of the foods they carry tends to help customers navigate the nutrition panel easier.”
As a way to prepare, retailers should familiarize themselves with the frequently asked questions pet parents ask when it comes to nutrition labels.
“Common things a client needs help with are finding the calorie content of a diet or determining and interpreting protein and fat ratios,” Opitz says. “Retailers would be well served to use the nutrition panel as a guideline, understand how certain components work within the body, and where some of these key percentages lie to answer questions directly.”
Of course, more informed pet parents expect transparency from products, and if they don’t understand what an ingredient is and what it contributes to the diet in general, it can affect their judgment.
“Assuming that pet food with a hard-to-pronounce ingredient is bad, is misleading,” says Dr. Kostyuk. “Pet food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients, including vitamins by their scientific or chemical names, and these vitamins often have long, complex names that are difficult to pronounce or understand.”
“This is why the role of retailers is important – sometimes all it takes is a little education,” she adds.
To help retailers educate customers, manufacturers create their own materials to help consumers understand their product’s nutritional label in more detail. For example, Midwestern Pet Foods recently created a video that breaks down exactly what pet parents should consider with the nutrition label they use. Not only will customers be able to learn more in-depth information about the products, retailers will also be able to.
ZIWI also provides tools for retailers and customers to better understand their products. The company also posts its recipes online, so customers can easily view ingredient details.
“At Nulo, we work to provide store partners with the information and resources they need to address topics such as our nutritional philosophy, ingredient sourcing, production processes, and quality control standards,” says Acuff. “We also work directly with our retailers through in-store tutorials, interactive tools and on-demand training that focus not only on nutrition, but also other key areas of content.”
Many customers view retailers as experts and will look to them for guidance on the best food and treatments for their pet’s needs. “Retailers are our industry experts because we can’t talk to every customer,” says Dr. Goldstein.
Ever must a retailer have a clear understanding of what the nutrition label says, and the key ingredients customers should be looking for to support their pet’s specific needs. If there is any doubt about the meaning of an ingredient, retailers should not hesitate to reach out to manufacturers directly for assistance.
In the end, there is a lot of information on this topic, and it may be overwhelming for some. Reassure clients that taking the time to understand what is best for their pet helps proactively support their health in the future, and all they can do is do their best.
“You can only do your best and trust your intuition,” Horn says. “Call a friend if you need help.” PB