By Treena Hein
The title of Euromonitor’s 2015 report Premiumisation in the age of Pet Parenthood aptly sums up the main trend in cat food today. “With a growing number of pet owners around the world now referring to themselves as pet ‘parents,’” the report states, “consumer demand for everything from grain-free and frozen pet food to such products as licensed clothing and smartphone-controlled electronic toys is exhibiting strong growth.” And with this growth of “pet parenthood” thinking comes a rising demand for pet food that more closely resembles our own. “The gap between human and pet food continues to narrow,” concludes the report, “with a growing number of pet food offerings marketed as grain-free, all-natural, raw or containing superfood ingredients.”
Of course, super-premium ingredients cost more, but more of us are willing to shell out to ensure our cats have the longest and healthiest life possible. “Much like in human food, there is a consumer who values quality and who is willing to pay more to ensure they are purchasing quality,” notes Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, senior nutritionist at Petcurean in Chilliwack, B.C. Matt Wilson, sales and marketing manager at FirstMate Pet Foods in North Vancouver, makes no apologies about their high-end raw materials: “There is no question that the source and quality of our ingredients increases the cost of our products, but it also has positive impacts the performance.”
It come as a surprise, however, to discover the premium nature of today’s cat food ingredients encompasses environmental sustainability and even animal welfare concerns. “The use of ethically sourced ingredients is important to our team and customers,” notes Wilson. “Our company uses free-run chicken and turkey, as well as wild-caught salmon, tuna and herring from sustainable fisheries. Our lamb is free-range and grass-fed without the addition of hormones or antibiotics.”
Champion Pet Foods in Edmonton is another cat food manufacturer that sources premium raw materials with minimal environmental impact. “We focus on fresh, local ingredients raised in a sustainable and responsible manner by people we know and trust,” explains senior communications specialist Liz Hulley. “Our foods are raised hormone, antibiotic and preservative-free.” Fresh and local is a big focus. “Just as people are interested in the popular ‘farm to table’ concept,” says Hulley, “we too practice the ‘farm to kitchen’ principle with ingredients arriving at our kitchen in one to three days, and go from kitchen to kibble within one to two days. In our Canadian kitchens alone, we deal with 100,000 kg of fresh ingredients each day.”
Beyond premium protein like fish, lamb, duck and poultry, premium functional ingredients are increasingly being included in cat food for their specific health-boosting benefits. Wilson says FirstMate was one of the first to introduce blueberries, a natural source of antioxidants, to both dog and cat food products. “Since that introduction, it has become an assumption in many cases that the product will contain a good source of antioxidants,” he notes. These sources include cranberries, apples, pomegranates and green tea.
Adolphe at Petcurean notes that the specific functional ingredients most important to cat owners are based on the individual needs of each cat. “Some of the functional ingredients that appear to be the most popular are prebiotics and probiotics to support digestive health,” she says, “fruits and veggies as a rich source of antioxidants, and coconut oil as a source of medium chain triglycerides.” Other functional ingredients being included in cat food formulas include turmeric (shown to promote circulation and decrease inflammation), licorice root (which also decreases inflammation and also stimulates the immune system) and ginger, fennel and peppermint (general digestive support). Champion Pet Foods is among the companies who are adding low-glycemic vegetables and fruits such as whole pumpkin and butternut squash to their cat food blends. As they are digested, these natural ingredients enter the blood stream slowly, promoting stable blood sugar levels and reducing the potential for fat storage. None of the companies report any palatability issues with any functional ingredients.
Champion Pet Foods has trademarked the term “Biologically Appropriate” to describe their cat (and dog) foods. “This means they mirror the freshness and variety of meats that cats would naturally hunt in the wild and are evolved to eat,” Hulley explains. “In nature, wildcats derive their nutritional needs by consuming whole prey animals. Muscle meat provides life-giving protein and fat while organs are densely packed with virtually every nutrient a cat or kitten needs, including essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.” Organs such as kidney, heart, liver and tripe, she notes, are loaded with heavy doses of B vitamins, minerals like phosphorus, iron, magnesium and iodine, and important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Bone and cartilage provide minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. “Our diets mimic the whole prey model, incorporating meats, organs and cartilage in ratios that mirror Mother Nature,” Hulley states. “This means essential nutrients are drawn from the ingredients naturally, dramatically reducing the need to add synthetic vitamins or mineral supplements to our foods.”
Adolphe, however, explains that the term biologically appropriate does not have a specific definition, nor is there any scientific evidence that feeding cats sinew, cartilage, organs and bone meal provides superior nutrition. “Cats are obligate carnivores and as such require a higher level of protein,” she says. “There is a trend toward using higher levels of fresh meat and species-specific meat meals in order to fulfill this requirement.” Wilson believes that “most ingredients used in pet foods will contain the organ meat, which is often where the biologically appropriate term has developed.”
The use of some grains in cat food is common within the industry, and opinions differ about how much grain – and what type of grain – should be included in formulations. Wilson notes that there are many cat food products that are free of specific grains like corn. These can be “a great quality and often well-priced product” for cat owners, he says. The firm’s FirstMate Classic cat food is free of corn and wheat.
Hulley notes that while cats, being obligate carnivores, have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates (which grains contain), the manufacture of dry extruded cat food requires a certain amount of carbohydrate to help hold the kibble together. And she believes it’s important for cat owners to understand that a pet food that’s technically grain-free can be made with large quantities of dried fruits and vegetables, many with high glycemic numbers. In addition, Hulley says “grains such as rice, potato and tapioca cause blood glucose to rise, resulting in increased fat storage which can lead to obesity and diabetes. We limit our carbohydrates to 25 per cent, unlike many conventional cat foods than often exceed 50 per cent.”
Adolphe explains that with the increased incidence of diabetes in cats, many owners are choosing lower carbohydrate foods to help stabilize blood glucose levels. “Canned foods are more conducive to having a lower carbohydrate content than kibble,” she adds, “because the carbohydrate is not needed for structural purposes. Our GO! paté canned recipes for cats are low in carbohydrates and in many cases have been reported to result in improved blood glucose control.”
There are those who believe increased rates of obesity and diabetes in ourselves and our cats is a sign that pet parenthood is being taken too far. No matter how healthy the food we feed ourselves and our cats, moderation would seem to be key.
This article appeared in the print issue:June 2016 edition, PETFood in Canada section