The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the voluntary association of local, state, and federal agencies that oversees pet food. Although AAFCO itself has no regulatory authority, FDA does refer to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles, and most all pet food companies adhere to AAFCO’s guidelines, labeling rules, and definitions for pet-food ingredients. In order for a pet food to claim itself “complete and balanced,” “the food must meet certain minimums or maximums established by [AAFCO]. AAFCO sets these rules to make sure that pet foods really do meet the nutritional needs of animals,” explains Patrick Luchsinger, nutrition marketing manager, Ingredion Inc. (Westchester, IL). These needs, of course, also depend on the animal’s stage of life.
Complete pet nutrition involves a lot of ingredients, including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins and minerals. “Veterinarians have identified between 42 and 48 essential nutrients for cats and dogs. Ensuring that a pet-food product provides the required nutrition means that three- to four-dozen ingredients regularly are used,” states the Pet Food Institute (PFI; Washington, DC), a U.S. trade association for cat- and dog-food manufacturers whose members account for 98% of all commercial cat and dog food produced in the United States. PFI explains that ingredients in pet food work on many fronts, contributing nutrients, texture or mouthfeel, flavor, preservation, and even food shape.
Manufacturers may also choose to include additional, health-promoting specialty ingredients outside of those that AAFCO requires, “as long as they have an AAFCO ingredient definition,” says David Preszler, technical director and senior account manager for Horn Animal Wellness (La Mirada, CA).
Today, enhanced nutrients might include “omega-3 and -6 fatty acids to aid in inflammation and hair/coat improvement, fibers such as beet pulp and fructooligosaccharides that aid in gut health, and sodium hexametaphosphate, which has been shown to improve dental health,” says John Dickerson, North American pet-food technology manager, Cargill Animal Nutrition (Hopkins, MN).
Enzymes are also AAFCO defined, says Sabinsa’s (East Windsor, NJ) senior marketing manager, Ahmed Khan. He adds that the ingredient supplier’s hardy LactoSpore Bacillus coagulans spore-forming probiotics are also becoming popular in pet food. Because pet food and animal feed is often served in dry form, AAFCO specifies that manufacturers should have a way to test their products to ensure that the microorganism content reflects what’s stated on the product label, as “[t]he labeling and promotional materials, including advertisements, for direct-fed microbial products state, suggest, or imply beneficial effects in animals associated with the products’ content of viable microorganisms,” AAFCO states.
Many ingredients familiar to humans—herbs, botanicals, and the like—can actually be found on FDA’s generally recognized as safe list of “Spices and other natural seasonings and flavorings” for animals (21 CFR 582.10). Some of these include chamomile, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, lavender, saffron, turmeric, and fenugreek (such as Sabinsa’s Fenufibers line, which Kahn says is included in pet food to help meet fiber demands and to stimulate digestion).
An ingredient supplier should know just which of its ingredients are pet-food compliant, adds Shaheen Majeed, Sabinsa’s marketing director. For instance, “While Sabinsa has over 100 ingredients for human nutrition, we have carefully aligned about 20 ingredients that follow both AFFCO’s guidelines and FDA’s CFR for animal nutrition. This has allowed us to be extremely focused on bringing out precisely crafted nutrients, flavors, spices, seasonings, enzymes, and probiotics to animals and pets the world over.”
Still, there are many more ingredients, like acai or maqui berry, that may be all the rage in human food but that FDA does not allow in pet food because they have no AAFCO definition. Acai, for instance, contains theobromine, which is poisonous to dogs. Preszler adds that if manufacturers choose to represent additional ingredients in the Guaranteed Analysis (the pet-food equivalent of the human-food Nutrition Facts panel), the ingredients must be listed with an asterisk to indicate that they are not required under AAFCO’s nutrient profiles.
For companies who nevertheless wish to push forward with a non-AAFCO–defined novel ingredient, this requires a food-additive petition with FDA or GRAS status. But, often, they may find that the trouble is not worth the cost, since anyone can then use the ingredient, and “they lose their competitive advantage,” Preszler adds.
So, what does a healthy diet comprise? Needs vary. “Cats are true carnivores, requiring a diet mainly of meat and meat products. Dogs are omnivores, with the ability to exist on a diet of meat and plant products,” Luchsinger says.
Vitamin A is crucial for cats in terms of maintaining eye, skin, and general health, for instance. “Cats require a preformed source of vitamin A in their diets. Liver contains large amounts of vitamin A, or it can be added to a cat’s food in the form of a supplement, whereas dogs can make do with beta-carotene instead (their bodies can turn it into vitamin A),” Luchsinger further explains. Taurine is another essential nutrient for cats, whereas dogs make their own. While dog food may exclude taurine, “if a cat is taurine deficient, the result can be a cat that suffers a devastating kind of heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” he says. Also, while dogs can synthesize the fatty acid arachidonic acid from linoleic acid, “cats need the real thing” by way of pet food, he says.
Human preferences also play a role in what a pet eats, of course. With moms and dads footing the bill for dog and cat food, which in the United States eclipsed $20 billion in 2013 sales, according to PFI, pet-food manufacturers must also appeal to owners’ tastes.
Natural, organic, gluten free, non-GMO, high protein—all of these claims are trending in human food. What about in pet food?
“’Natural’ is one of the leading claims for pet foods in North America,” says Lynn Deffenbaugh, global product manager, Kemin Industries (Des Moines, IA). “The language used for ‘natural’ diets usually reads, ‘Natural with added vitamins and minerals,’ because some nutritionally required vitamins and minerals are not available in a natural form. Organic and GMO-free ingredients are desirable, but not all ingredients in a complete and balanced diet are available as organic or Identity Preserved,” she adds.
Kemin supplies a range of ingredients that Deffenbaugh says are compatible with organic requirements and even allow manufacturers to obtain organic certification. One example is Kemin’s KN-50 IP Liquid antioxidant. Luchsinger says that Ingredion offers non-GMO and natural nutritional and starch ingredients. Horn provides non-GMO, natural, and organic options, and Sabinsa’s pet-ingredient line is non-GMO and natural.
“No” claims, such as “no gluten” or “no grain,” are also common now, says Preszler. “It seems that marketers find it easier to say what their product does notcontain than what it does.” Also, he adds, “Many of these ‘no’ claims are based on what the consumer knows about human products, which often do not apply to pets—e.g., gluten-free.” Like all claims, “no” claims and claims like “high protein” are permitted, as long as the statement is true and consistent with the formulation, Deffenbaugh says. Other relevant claims today are “low fat” or “reduced fat,” says Cargill’s Dickerson.
And as for structure/function claims (“supports” and “helps maintain”), they must be truthful and not misleading, Luchsinger emphasizes, and not stray into drug inferences.
“Unless the seller has specific clinical study evidence with their own product to support efficacy claims, most are not allowed,” adds Preszler. “Often, marketers claim benefits that might be known to the consumer as a benefit to humans, and because of the humanization of pets, the consumer tends to think that it will have the same benefits for their pets.” But companies who make claims without support are on “very thin ice,” he says. “Regulators are cracking down on this sort of hijacked science (using studies done on other animals or in humans to support claims being made for dogs or cats) as support for claims.”
Still, innovation is happening, and a lot of that has to do with treats, says Hanjoo Chae, PhD, manager of technical services for Ingredion. “Baked treats like biscuit types and jerky treats using raw, quality meat are novel products,” he says. Dental chews, semi-moist treats, and freeze-dried shreds of meat and dehydrated formats are also on the rise, companies say. Also, adds Horn’s Preszler, delivery systems such as single-serve gels and add-to-water powders are also making their way into the pet sector.
In food, kibble and wet food remain the stalwarts. For its convenience factor alone, dry pet food continues to rank at the top, especially for dogs. But even in the cat-food category, which sees a higher percentage of wet food, dry cat food “is expected to exceed the wet-pet-food category within the next one to two years,” says Kemin’s Deffenbaugh. “This reemphasizes the importance of convenience to pet parents.”
Ingredient suppliers are finding new ways to improve formulation options for these popular pet-food formats.
Take kibble. Kibble is typically extruded. Ingredients are combined, and the dough is shaped, cooked, and dried. Following that, for flavor and preservation, kibble is often coated. Flavor and/or preservatives are either mixed with a fat and sprayed on, or kibble is sprayed with fat and flavor is then dusted on. (The additional fat may also help to fulfill a food’s fat-content requirements when not all of the fat can be introduced through the extrusion process alone, points out Deffenbaugh.)
Horn’s Preszler talks about the company’s latest development for kibble, CoteRite 100, based on trans-free, non-hydrogenated palm oil. Marketed as a more palatable alternative to canola oil for coating kibble and with a higher taste appeal equal to that of chicken fat, CoteRite 100 is also more stable against oxidative rancidity compared to canola oil.
Companies that do currently use canola oil often do so in place of animal fat, and most need to add an antioxidant for preservation, Preszler says. Now, CoteRite 100 offers them another non-animal alternative, with increased shelf life of up to 4–5 months in the company’s accelerated studies so far. It is also non-GMO and can be supplied certified sustainable.
Aside from plant choices, “Typically, animal digests are used as palatants,” Preszler says. “These are commonly made from organ meats. Some consumers object (yuck factor), so we are seeing other meat-based flavorants being used,” in general. Popular palatants for kibble include chicken, poultry, and pork, Kemin’s Deffenbaugh says. Often, wet food does not need additional flavorants.
Ingredion also has a solution for kibble coating. The company offers strong, non-oil–based tacking agents such as N-Tack, K4484, Crystal Tex, and Purity Gum 59 as a means to bind flavor seasoning to kibble. Traditionally, an oil coating would serve the same purpose, but Luchsinger says that oil coatings can be problematic in terms of going rancid, as well as the separation of seasoning over time.
Wet food faces challenges of its own. In place of popular forms of canned meat chunk and gravy or canned meatloaf, marketers are introducing gravies and purees that can be poured onto kibble to make it more delicious. This also helps sidestep some of the challenges with the traditional, aforementioned wet-food forms: “In canned meat chunk and gravy, preliminarily making the chunk (reformed meat byproducts) has been a challenge, as the current binders such as blood plasma, soy protein, and corn fiber were not consumer friendly due to negative perception and allergy concern,” Luchsinger says.
But even gravy ingredients present challenges. Luchsinger says that while typical gravy ingredients are gums (guar or xanthan) and modified cornstarch—ingredients that provide the necessary viscosity, appearance, and gravy texture—gum ingredients have been challenged by supply/price instability and potential digestive issues, while non-grain trends have “pushed modified cornstarch out of play.”
Instead, some manufacturers are opting for other starch alternatives like native tapioca or potato starch—such as Ingredion’s Grain Free line—for wet food and other pet food. These solutions “provide structure and strength, reduce breakage, increase chew time, improve visual appearance, and maintain viscosity, while allowing the manufacturer to still make a ‘grain free’ claim,” Luchsinger says.
To improve palatability as well as digestibility, Cargill’s Dickerson says that ensuring starch is adequately gelatinized is key, especially for kibble. He says the company has developed a method to “measure starch cook” to ensure proper gelatinization.
Pet food—whether wet or dry—must endure a long shelf life (somewhere in the neighborhood of 12–18 months). To make things even more difficult, an animal’s sensitive palate often detects straight away anything “off” resulting from oxidation. This is where Kemin comes in. The company’s antioxidant solutions, such as its Verdilox natural antioxidant line, help protect pet food from spoilage due to oxidation. “The optimum program includes treatment of raw materials as early in the supply chain as possible, as well as the addition of sufficient antioxidant levels to provide residual protection throughout the [food’s] shelf life,” says Jim Mann, Kemin’s global antioxidant product manager. Also, given the formulation tendencies for pet foods today, antioxidant solutions are more important than ever. For example, Mann says, “The increased use of unsaturated fats/oils often requires higher levels of antioxidants and often different stabilization strategies—whether it is reformulation, packaging design, or conversion to different antioxidants.”
Kemin is also working on solutions to leverage both its palatant expertise (such as its Palasurance line) and its preservative capabilities. One exciting new area is what Deffenbaugh describes as “pH-adjusted palatants.” These palatants utilize organic acids, which are themselves often used as a preservative in food. But while their acidic nature helps control bacterial growth, they also “result in a loss of palatability,” Deffenbaugh explains. Instead, Kemin’s pH-adjusted palatants “deliver organic acids to the pet food while simultaneously overcoming their negative effect on palatability. These results are achieved by selection and combinations of highly palatable components that complement and do not interfere with the acidification. The result is the proper balance between acidification and palatability using ingredients that are allowed to be used in pet foods.”
Unsurprisingly, how you process pet food has an impact on ingredient choices. For instance, says Kemin’s Mann, the extrusion and drying process puts a lot of oxidative stress on food. Both Cargill’s Dickerson and Horn’s Preszler say proteins also present challenges in production. For instance, “Some unique ingredients may be protein based and so are subject to denaturation by heat or acid,” Preszler says. “An example might be colostrum added for immune health. Manufacturers need to be aware of the effects of high heat during processing that might render the colostrum ‘inactive.’” The addition of an ingredient like flax oil can also be problematic because oil is by nature sensitive to oxidation. Mann adds that ingredient combinations such as protein with animal, marine, or vegetable fats, along with the addition of vitamins and minerals, can overall create a challenging formula to keep stable.
“Extrusion is a high-temperature, high-pressure process that is used to cook and destroy unwanted microbes. With heat-labile ingredients, it is necessary to include these ingredients downstream in the process,” Dickerson advises. And, for wet food, which undergoes additional sterilization steps once the container is sealed, “this does not allow for adding heat-labile ingredients/nutrients into the process.”
So, there you have it. When formulated to spec, pet food indeed provides complete nutrition. But don’t forget that we can always continue raising the bar for our beloved friends. “All individual animals are unique, and highly involved pet parents are able to use a combination of diet, treats, and supplements to optimize nutrition for their pet,” says Kemin’s Deffenbaugh. “Now, if we only did as well for ourselves.”
Photo © iStockphoto.com/Charles Mann