Growing awareness over the need for sustainable pet food solutions as well as concerns over pet allergies is driving an increased interest in foods made with alternative proteins including some surprising options, such as cricket proteins and grubs.

For many dog owners, sustainability is at the core of a switch to foods made with alternative protein options. For Jiminy's, a Berkeley,Calif.-based manufacturer of Cricket Crave, a kibble that combines insect protein with plant-based ingredients, the use of crickets drives a more sustainable process.

'Crickets are a swarming species so they're not too worried about personal space, and grubs are even less inhibited,' explained Anne Carlson, CEO of Jiminy's. 'That allows an insect farm to produce the maximum amount of protein for the minimal amount of water and land. It's a simple formula and it's exactly why insect protein will be forever atop the sustainable food chain. We're happy to be in this space at this moment in time. Don't forget, dogs in the USA consume 32 billion pounds of protein each year, causing enormous stresses on land and water.'

Jiminy's has also released its Good Grub line of food and treats, which are made with dried black soldier fly larvae, in an effort to continue building out and offering consumers new products—and new proteins.

'Grub protein is even more sustainable than cricket protein since the gains get larger as the insect gets smaller and needs less land and water,' Carlson said. 'The nutritional benefits of grub protein are essentially the same as cricket protein. It's prebiotic and humane, fights climate change, has all the essential amino acids and is hypoallergenic too. Considering how well the insects live, their short lifespan and the outstanding protein yield, it's almost as if insects were engineered for meat production.'

Scout and Zoe's use of black soldier fly larvae is helping the company accomplish its mission to do good for the pet, the planet and the community, said Cynthia Dunston Quirk, founder of the Anderson, Ind.-based manufacturer.

'How the black soldier fly larvae are grown and what they eat makes them very sustainable,' she explained. 'The larvae feed on fruits and vegetables that are past their prime and heading to the landfill. So, the little larvae are cleaning up the environment just by eating. The lifecycle of the larvae is three weeks from egg state to larvae, and they are voracious eaters. They grow one million percent of their body weight and utilize no additional water as they grow. All the water they need is available in the fruit and veggies consumed.'

Like cricket farming, Dunston Quirk said that black soldier fly larvae require significantly less land than cattle. 'According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, it takes 546 acres of land to raise 300 head of cattle,' Dunston Quirk continued. 'On that same acreage, billions of black soldier fly larvae can hatch, develop and be harvested, utilizing the space above the ground as well as the ground itself. The larvae also emit less carbon and methane gas, which is good for protecting the ozone layer, and need no additional water to grow.'

While sustainability is important to many of those who try foods with alternative protein sources, potential food sensitives and allergies may have started them on the journey in the first place.

Jim Galovski, co-founder, CEO and president of Needham, Mass.-based Guardian Pet Food Co., said food sensitives and allergies prompted the company to create a vegan bar in its NOBL food line. The vegan recipe is made with peas, lentils, chickpeas, fava beans and dried yeast, all of which offer a good source of protein, according to the company.

Of course, sustainability has also been paramount. Galovski said that there's a quantity standpoint to look at. The two-ounce NOBL food bars can feed a 25-pound dog for the day. With higher digestibility, Galovski said that pets are receiving more of what they need in a lesser quantity—with less waste, too.

The Nutrition Factor - When 'Meat First' Is the Mindset 

There are a number of factors that are likely to hold dog owners and even retailers back from getting onboard with foods made with alternative proteins. A big one is the 'meat first' mentality.

'The pet industry has done a great job marketing real meat first, but we've been trying to shift the conversation to it being not as much about the ingredients but the nutrients,' said Jim Galovski, co-founder, CEO and president of Needham, Mass.-based Guardian Pet Food Co. 'Still, this remains a heated topic. Should you ever want to alienate a group, just bring up religion, politics or what they feed their dog.'

Dogs are omnivores, so meat isn't as vital to their diet as it has appeared to consumers over the years, said Anne Carlson, CEO of Jiminy's, a Berkeley, Calif.-based manufacturer of pet food and treats that combine insect protein with plant-based ingredients.

'Dogs do need the 10 essential amino acids, so your dog food has to contain all of them,' she continued. 'Jiminy's insect protein has all 10 and at levels exceeding [Association of American Feed Control Officials] AAFCO standards.'

Insect meat is very high in protein and compares very favorably to traditional proteins, Carlson explained. For example, 100 grams of beef yields 22 grams of protein, while 100 grams of insect meat yields 32 grams of protein, she said. Carlson added that insect meat also doesn't create the allergy issues that dogs have developed with traditional proteins over the years.

But retailers might have to overcome their reluctance to embrace this category in order for it to truly take off, said Cynthia Dunston Quirk, founder of Scout and Zoe's, a manufacturer in Anderson, Ind. There is a sense of discomfort with bug protein that retailers themselves might feel.

'Dogs eat bugs whether the owner is feeding them to the pet intentionally or not,' she said. 'Watch any dog roam in a yard—they're foraging and finding and eating bugs. Ultimately, retailers do need to champion this as an option for more consumers to be willing to give it a try.' Carlson said that Jiminy's has been fighting the 'ick factor' since day one.

'The most effective response is to get the treat in a pet owner's hands,' Carlson continued. 'Once they see that it's a very familiar-looking and -smelling treat—[our] soft and chewy training treats also have a beef jerky scent—and learn about insect protein's unique benefits, it's game over and we have a convert.'

Denise Strong, co-owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that she hasn't gotten any inquiries about alternative proteins yet—and she does think the ick factor of bugs might be hard to overcome with consumers. Strong said that she is personally waiting for more evidence to prove that bugs could be a primary source of protein in a dog's diet.

Jason Ast, owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, N.C., is also reluctant and a firm believer in carnivorous diets that are low in sugar and carbs. Whenever possible, he looks to convert dog owners to a raw diet and said he has seen it effectively address some customers' allergy concerns.

But Ast does get vegan or vegetarian pet owners who really want to feed their dogs a similar diet. He acknowledges that for many of these pet owners, raw is a challenge because the sight and smell of the food can make them incredibly uncomfortable. Ast said that no matter what approach or beliefs a retailer may have, looking down on a pet owner's food choices is never the answer. 'Personally, I do enjoy crickets and some of the other novel proteins for treats,' Ast continued.

Product Selection -  What You Need to Know

Given the newness of pet food options made with alternative protein sources like crickets and grubs, the industry can expect to see more new products like these coming down the pipeline. With more alternative-protein pet diets coming into the market, retailers should remain diligent in vetting new products and select foods made with high-quality ingredients, according to industry insiders.

Anne Carlson, CEO of Berkeley, Calif.-based Jiminy's, said retailers should start with where products are coming from. If a product is North American sourced, it is a good indicator of high-quality ingredients, she added.

'Specific to insect protein, production control at insect farms is rigorous,' Carlson said. 'A cricket farm is like a warehouse, so everything is contained and can be easily overseen. The general principles associated with the breeding, rearing, and processing of insects for feed and food have been established and are available for public access.'

Insiders expressed some concern over the 'copycats' that are jumping into this space, which is why vetting new products is so important. 'Retailers should be aware of where insects are grown,' said Cynthia Dunston Quirk, founder of Scout and Zoe's, a manufacturer in Anderson, Ind. 'There are already some doing this outside of the U.S.'

Jim Galovski, co-founder, CEO and president of Needham, Mass.-based Guardian Pet Food Co., said that retailers and consumers alike need to demand transparency from manufacturers.

'It's so important to ask for a digestibility study,' he said. 'If the company says they don't do them, you really should look for another company. A digestibility study is measuring the bioavailability of nutrients in the food—it's almost unethical not to do that for dog parents who are going to be putting their trust and faith into a food.' Galovski said that retailers should also demand transparency in terms of sourcing as well as processes.

Ultimately, Galovski said he would like to see more acceptance as the industry moves into the future. 'It's important that retailers and pet parents give some of these new options a chance, assuming they've done their due diligence on them,' he said. 'It's time to encourage some innovation within the category. Whether it's some of the new alternative protein sources or alternative food formats, there is definitely room to grow.'

by Pet Products News

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