Palatability and pet food: What is it and why it matters
Retail customers are an interesting bunch. They want pet food that is tasty and provides nutrition and nourishment for their pet. They also look for a quality pet food product at a really good price — and these two desires often feel at odds to anyone trying to build and maintain a proprietary brand in an increasingly competitive marketplace. That’s where palatability comes into play.
Palatability is essentially a measurement of how desirable pets find their food, and it is a critical component of both pet nutrition and brand loyalty. Here’s what you need to know about using palatability to create food that’s a feast for the eyes, nose and palate of your customers’ pets.
The goal: Pet food that’s healthy and tastes great
Average humans have roughly 5 million scent receptors in their noses — paling in comparison to the hundreds of millions that dogs have. The result is that pets are very sensitive to everything from smell and taste to the shape and texture of their pet food. Even protein content and acidity can affect whether a pet will find a particular food palatable.
Similar to a human deciding whether to eat a healthy salad or a juicy cheeseburger, creating a pet food that is healthy and tastes great can sometimes be a challenge. For example, a manufacturer can create a dog food jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, quality ingredients and nutrients. But if it tastes about as good to a dog as a piece of raw kale tastes to us, Fido won’t eat it. And Fido’s owner won’t buy that brand ever again.
Alternatively, it’s possible to make a very low-quality pet food taste fantastic — just like human junk food. While that highly palatable junk food might get eaten, it won’t be long before the poor nutrition causes serious issues such as obesity, heart problems, diabetes, and even a shorter life span.
The goal for building a private brand that wins, therefore, is balancing health with taste and budget. Ensuring your customers’ pets are getting the essential nutrients and vitamins they need to live a long, happy life from a food they want to eat and at a price their owners are willing to pay are critical factors for manufacturers and retailers to consider when launching new products into the market.
So how does a manufacturer figure out what is palatable? It all begins with taste testing. Really. Palatability studies are scheduled at a third-party feeding lab where a formula can be studied with real animals. The goal of proprietary brands, by nature, is often to emulate the fastest-moving product on retail shelves, so there is usually a competitor being tested against.
The food is categorized based on the various differences (shape, formula, etc.) and then offered in a carefully controlled method to the panel of animals.
With research in hand, manufacturers know how to adjust the formulas to get better palatability, whether that’s changing certain ingredient ratios, selecting a different shape, or adding/modifying sensory profiles using palatants.
Palatants are anything that offer significant flavor, smell or texture enhancements. R&D teams at manufacturers across the globe are constantly looking at different ingredients or combinations of ingredients to deliver the most flavor. Many of these ingredients are expensive to source — often delicacies like liver, organ meats and other ingredients that pets desire. There are entire companies in the pet food industry dedicated to delivering the right combination of flavors to pet food manufacturers and ultimately improving the experience pets have with the food.
As such, palatability studies can also tell manufacturers if they’re over-delivering on flavor when compared to a competitor, specifically when it comes to expensive palatants. If the goal is parity to a particular national brand and the private brand outperforms by five to one, there may be the option to cut cost substantially by reducing the amount of palatants and still get the desired performance.
The best manufacturers are proficient at balancing quality, palatability and budget, leaving you with the most bang for your buck. And while not all proprietary brand manufacturers use palatability tests, choosing a manufacturer that does conduct them on a regular basis is extremely important to the success of your proprietary brand.
In short, the right manufacturer will bring their experience to bear to formulate just the right mix of flavors and nutrition, no matter the product.
Dustin Keys is a food scientist for American Nutrition Inc.