By John Gilpatrick
Pet food feels like it hasn’t changed in years. There are wet and dry options. You can choose between chicken, beef, and fish flavors. But besides that, dog food is dog food, and cat food is cat food, right?
“It’s actually changed a lot over the last 10 or 20 years,” says Dr. Jonathan Stockman, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and clinical instructor and head of the Clinical Nutrition Service at Colorado State University. “For example, we have a much better understanding of how nutrition and obesity are linked and how diet can help control the obesity epidemic we see with pets.”
As such, Stockman says, pet food companies have revised feeding guidelines to address obesity so they’re more careful about what they recommend to owners who blindly follow the guidelines on the package.
But that’s merely part of the pet food story, and while the industry is in a good place, there are improvements that can be made and challenges that will need to be met in the coming decades. Here are three trends to watch when it comes to the future of pet food:
More Specific Nutrient Targeting
Food today, Stockman says, is very well-balanced. “We have the essential nutrients and nutritional requirements down pat,” he says. “Vitamin D, calcium, phosphorus—we know the minimum amount of these and other nutrients. For most, we have a maximum, as well, but where we still need to improve is in finding the ideal level for each nutrient in each pet.”
He adds that vets, vet nutritionists, and those who work with pet food companies know how to sustain health but are still looking for the best ways to tweak those requirements and optimize health.
This is especially true when it comes to the nutritional requirements of aging pets. “We don’t have guidelines for what a geriatric diet is supposed to look like,” says Dr. Maryanne Murphy, clinical assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “We need to know more about muscle mass, which means evaluating protein intake for specific animals. We also need to put more work into digestibility and how an animal’s intestinal patterns change as he or she ages.”
These questions, among others, should inform future versions of pet food.
Sustainability and New Sources of Protein
Right now, chicken, fish, and beef are the primary sources of protein in commercial pet foods. They’re also the primary sources of protein for humans, and the respective populations of both humans and pets are increasing faster than the food chain can keep up with.
“In 50 years,” Stockman says, “the prediction is that the protein requirement for the human population is going to double from what it is today.”
Do you think humans will collectively sacrifice so dogs can keep eating the way they do now? “We don’t want to be competing for resources,” Stockman says. “People are looking at alternative sources of protein now so that we don’t get to a place in 20, 30 years where we look back and wish we did something.”
Among these alternative sources are vegetarian proteins—like beans and fungi—as well as bacterial sources. “The challenges we have is that we need to assess the safety of a new protein and figure out how to make sure all the necessary amino acids are bioavailable for pets that consume it,” he says.
Additionally, insect protein—think crickets and mealworms—is something that’s being taken very seriously as a future solution to protein scarcity. “They’re great sources of protein,” Murphy says. “The hurdle that pet food companies need to overcome is one of perception. If they start adding protein from a mealworm, consumers will see that as a move to take away the chicken component, not as a sustainability move.”
Focus on Research and Feeding Trials
The raw movement has been all the rage in pet food over the last few years. Its proponents suggest eating raw food will give dogs shinier coats, healthier skin, and more energy. And while anecdotal evidence sometimes is supportive, these benefits aren’t yet backed by rigorous scientific trials.
“In terms of the diet overall, there’s still no evidence out there one way or the other as to its effectiveness,” Murphy says. “We don’t have that data at this time.”
That will likely change in the near future, Stockman suggests, via a long-term, well-controlled feeding trial where a group of dogs would be fed raw vs. conventional food.
Additionally, Stockman says some new technologies could be useful to assess the impact of this change in diet, including “food-omics,” a research technique that allows for an extremely large number of nutrition-related measurements to be taken in a very short period of time. In this case, Stockman believes it might take the form of a microbiome assessment in the gut and in fecal matter that can show how raw feeding impacts the canine metabolism differently from food that is cooked.
But raw food is only one of several popular diet trends for which scientific research is still needed. Others include grain-free and low-carb, says Stockman.
When these trends are studied extensively, both Murphy and Stockman expect the scientific community to come down on it either positively or negatively, and when that happens, the public will have a choice to make.