We’ve explored the science of pet food nutrition in the past, but that’s only half the story. Just like human food, pet food has to be more than just nutritious: it has to satisfy the senses as well. Researchers are using food science to make a new generation of pet foods that appeal to the tastes of our furry friends. Let’s take a closer look.
Pet Food: Who Decides?
Pet food manufacturers acknowledge that every package has two consumers: the owner and the pet. Factors that influence consumer decisions include:
- Attractiveness of packaging
- Reputation of brand
- Ingredients and nutrition information
- Price and availability
Pet owners often read, research, and compare before selecting a food, purchasing it, and bringing it home. However, the pet themselves makes the decision confirmation. Without being influenced by brand, label, or price, pets choose foods based on:
It is also worth noting that pet owners can also be highly influenced by the sensory properties of pet food: if that food doesn’t look or smell good, people may hesitate to feed it to their beloved animals. Likewise, there may be some reciprocity, in which pets (especially dogs) are more eager to consume foods that the owner finds acceptable.
Every pet owner has had the experience of buying expensive, nutritious, high-quality food, and then discovering that their pet will have none of it. Pet food companies need to create products that satisfy both consumers with every purchase.
Because the aesthetic factors that influence food selection and preference are so broad and variable, the National Research Council has adopted a working definition of palatability to mean:
The physical and chemical properties of the diet which are associated with promoting or suppressing feeding behavior during the pre-absorption or immediate post-absorptive period.
Pet food palatability is thus incredibly important, but not easy to define. Our best measure for palatability is to simply offer foods to pets, and see which food the animal eats more of. From that, we infer a preference. As researchers have pointed out, pet owners are often able to understand their pets’ feelings and preferences, but palatability remains difficult to replicate in a way that benefits large scale research and manufacture.
Factors that further complicate palatability testing are varied and species-specific, including:
- Natural feeding behaviors. The wild ancestors of both dogs and cats are hunting species. Wild dogs and cats tend to eat quickly and completely, due to competition, and do not savor the aesthetic properties of their meals. Dogs in particular are voracious and opportunistic eaters who will consume a wide range of foods very quickly.
- Aversion to the novel. Cats tend to display an instinctive aversion to unfamiliar foods, but all animals may behave differently when offered new or unfamiliar foods. Refusal of a new pet food may not indicate any palatability problems, but may simply indicate a hesitancy about the new and unfamiliar.
- Changes in routine. Many house pets learn certain habits and routines around food from a young age. Some pets eat at certain times of day, or prefer to have their owner present, or prefer to eat from a specific bowl. These preferences can make it difficult to test palatability alone, because they affect feeding behavior regardless of the food.
To date, our best measure of pet food palatability is the one bowl or two bowl test: when given a single food, will the pet eat it and how much? When given two different foods, which will the animal eat first? Presumably the deciding factor in the two-bowl test is the aroma of the food, and researchers often witness animals sniffing at both bowls before making their selection.
New Frontiers in Pet Food
Faced with this variety of challenges and idiosyncrasies, researchers are turning to more objective methods of measuring palatability and optimizing pet food products.
- Advanced measurement methods. scientists are using mass spectrometry to measure volatile compounds in pet foods to analyze and understand aromas, while electronic tongues can be used to analyze taste.
- Eco-friendly pet food. There is growing interest in creating foods utilizing plant-based proteins, and research has shown that plant-based pet foods can be palatable and acceptable to pets. However, cats are obligate carnivores, who appear to regulate their diet by macronutrient ratio rather than palatability factors, and a plant based diet will malnourish and potentially kill a cat. Local, sustainable, and eco-friendly are the next phase in pet food.
- Premiumization. As the world becomes more urban, more city-dwellers are choosing smaller dog breeds as companion animals, which limits dog food sale volumes. However, pet owners are increasingly willing to spend more for premium and ultra-premium pet foods. More and more pet food brands are offering foods customized to the specific needs and preferences of individual pets, and finding new ways to please pets and their owners. Finnish pet retail store Musti ja Mirri has developed a loyalty program for dogs (not their owners). Dogs are given a smart collar that recognizes the pet, allowing staff to greet the dog by name and offer their preferred treats.
Grapefrute is proud to recruit for some of the most exciting, innovative brands & innovators in pet nutrition, helping develop a new generation of pet foods that will please pets as much as their owners. Do you need to strengthen your innovation team? Contact us today.