Consumers love their pets just like human family members. It’s no wonder many owners go to great efforts to make sure pets enjoy their meals, treats and even nutritional supplements. For many pets, it’s the highlight of their day. Just the sound of a can opener gets a hiding cat’s attention while opening the refrigerator wakes a sleeping dog.

“Not only do we want pets to enjoy meal time, we want to ensure they’re getting proper nutrition to support a vibrant, healthy life,” says Dale Spence, vice president of marketing, AFB International, St. Charles, Missouri. “Just as most people probably won’t eat a bowl of wheat germ each morning ­— no matter how healthy it is — a pet can’t be forced to eat a healthy but unpalatable meal.”

Abby Castillo, global product manager-palatants, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa, says, “For most pet owners, the proof of quality and flavorful pet food products is in watching our friends enjoy their food. When a new diet is introduced to a pet and it stimulates active consumption, it’s considered palatable, and therefore a success.”

Formulating palatability

Many pet food and pet treat processors rely on palatants so that the flavors they offer appeal to pets and stay fresh throughout the product’s shelf life. Palatants are ingredient systems designed to make pet foods, treats and supplements taste better in order to ensure that pets receive the vital nutrients they need.

“Palatants entice a pet to consume the product, which while nutritious, may be inconsistent with their native diet,” Spence says. “Dry foods make more frequent use of palatants and use palatants at higher inclusion rates than wet foods. Wet foods tend to naturally be more palatable due to processing techniques and higher moisture content.”

Not long ago, pet food palatants were referred to as digests, a nod to their process and product. These ingredients are basically chemically or enzymatically hydrolyzed clean animal tissues that have not undergone decomposition. Their intent is to provide the sensory impact of meat, as if the pet were scavenging in the wild. 

“Palatants have grown significantly more sophisticated since the days of digests,” Spence says. “Today, palatants are as varied as the pet food brands that rely on their use.”

Successfully achieving palatability in pet food requires balancing product formulation, ingredient quality — including the freshness of raw materials —and flavor profiles. When creating a successful product, pet food processors need a trusted partner whose expertise includes an understanding of the behavioral differences and preferences of pets.

“We evaluate a flavor’s success just as many others do, which is by 2-bowl testing with dogs and cats and gathering data based on their first choice and consumption of food eaten,” Castillo says. “However, it’s just as important to partner with experts who understand palatability at a molecular level.”

That molecular level includes putting the “roasted” into beef and the “grilled” into chicken. It’s the “burnt” edges of the meatloaf and the “smoked” in the salmon. Palatants can do that.

“Palatants are initially processed like a digest, but other ingredients are incorporated to facilitate a transformation called the Maillard reaction,” Castillo says. “The Maillard reaction is responsible for flavor and color development during the cooking of a variety of foods.” Castillo explains, “With improved knowledge of the molecular building blocks of pet food flavors and identification of the molecules that particularly influence pets’ preferences, it’s possible to deliver effective pet food-specific solutions to increase palatability.”

Other ingredients may also be included in the palatant, some of which impact flavor, directly or indirectly. For example, yeast extracts enhance flavors much like salt, and antioxidants preserve flavors by slowing the oxidation of fats. Oxidized fats have a rancid off flavor that can overpower desirable flavors in the food. 

Palatants are designed to ensure consistent quality and achieve label claims important to pet owners. The food’s appearance and aroma must also meet the owner’s expectations at every feeding.

“Palatants today must be in line with the demand for natural,” Castillo says. “There is growing popularity from consumers looking for clean labels and claims for no meat byproducts, allergens, artificial flavors or colors.”

Palatants help brands differentiate. This is increasingly important in the world of pet food.

“Data show that 75% of consumers buy their pet foods in drug stores, warehouse stores or pet stores,” says Moira Watson, vice president marketing and communications, Watson Inc., West Haven, Connecticut. “Only about 25% of consumers buy pet foods in grocery stores, which is pretty amazing, considering that pet food is still an entire aisle in most supermarkets. Even breakfast cereals are often relegated to, at most, only one side of an aisle. Very few product categories in grocery stores command both sides of a whole aisle.”

“The selection now is, at the very least, overwhelming,” Watson says. “Deciding what foods are best for your pet can be a real challenge, and many of us devote time to researching the best ingredients for our pets.”

Product labels are the main focus for the majority of shoppers. They are looking at ingredient lists, country of origin and front-of-package claims such as grain-free, organic or non-GMO. They also look at flavor profiles and wonder if their pet would find it tasty based on previous experience.

“The leading factor in making a pet food purchasing decision is taste, as some pets can be very picky eaters,” Watson says. “For dogs and cats in particular, their sense of smell and taste is so much better than our own that flavor and aroma really play a major role in whether or not the product is accepted.”

Food has to be safe and nutritionally balanced, but if the pets don’t like the flavor, they will not eat it.

“Pet-owner shoppers are generally looking for meat as the first ingredient, and that makes sense, since meat is the main component of the ancestral diet of our dogs and cats,” Watson says. “Many also look for a single source of protein. There are a significant number of dogs, for example, that have difficulty digesting or tolerating certain proteins. Therefore, it becomes necessary to restrict which proteins are in their diet. Consumers must be able to trust that the proteins labeled in the ingredient statement are really the only proteins or meats used in the manufacture of that dog or cat food.”

Single-sourced animal protein presents a challenge to pet food manufacturers in terms of palatant application. To support the claim for a single source of animal protein, the company must apply a palatant made with the same specific protein. In response, companies such as Kemin have developed palatants made with plant proteins and Maillard technology to generate aromas and flavors that appeal to pets and are compatible with all animal proteins.

“These palatants can provide sources of natural vegetarian flavor and flexibility for addressing ingredient restrictions and customer-label requirements,” Castillo says.

Spence agrees that there’s a trend toward vegetable-based palatants to support single protein, clean-label pet foods. Vegetable-derived proteins come from many sources, including corn, soy, potato and specialty grains, he says.

Regardless of animal- or vegetable-based, palatant performances range from economy to mid-level to premium. Their price points are reflective of their effectiveness in delivering desirable flavor to the food.

“The upcharge per ton depends on the application rate, which generally ranges from 1% to 3% for liquid palatants, and 0.5% to 2% for dry palatants,” Spence says. “Great results can be achieved by formulating with best-in-class palatants, particularly when the brand capitalizes on the positioning opportunity that comes with the use of a premium palatant.”

Something to keep in mind is palatants are not the only contributor to flavor. Raw materials and flavor ingredients play an important role in the sensory attributes of the finished product. And pets can be fickle.

“There is no universal ‘best palatant,’ only the best one for a given set of parameters,” says Han Laumen, research and development director at AFB International. “Think of it this way: In a restaurant, would you say, ‘send me your best dessert’ if you know you love fruit and are allergic to chocolate? The server would need to know something about your tastes and situation to select the best dessert for you.”

“Choosing the best palatant for a customer’s situation is even more complex,” he says. “To serve a customer optimally, we want to get the best information available, then perform a careful analysis to recommend options that will work synergistically with the desired product for a high-performance result.”

Crucial to performance are factors like product formulation, ingredient quality and process capabilities. And, what is the aroma the pet owner expects? If the aroma does not meet the owner’s expectations, or even worse, the owner finds it offensive, it will likely not be served to the pet.

Appealing to owner and pet

When it comes to specific taste profiles, there are common flavors that work well for each animal species, but there are also preferred flavors. This is evident between cats and dogs.

“While they both tend to like meats such as beef or chicken, on an individual basis, their flavor preference can be very different,” says Mark Pieloch, president, Pet Flavors Inc., Melbourne, Florida. “Cats have a tendency to lean more toward saltier flavors such as those found in fish. Dogs, on the other hand, prefer savory flavors, like liver.”

In specialty diet and supplement foods, this can be very helpful. “The ingredients in supplements tend to taste bitter or sour,” Pieloch says. “These different flavorings can increase the palatability for both canines and felines. This means that the animals are far more likely to live healthier lives as they take the natural supplements that help them maintain proper nutrition.”

Megan Trent, marketing representative, Gold Coast Ingredients, Commerce, California, says, “The name of the flavor can influence purchasing behavior of pet owners. For example, pet owners who want the best products for their animals are likely to compare a beef vs. filet mignon-flavored dog food, or a fish vs. wild salmon-flavored cat food. More descriptive flavor descriptions can make finished products appear to be of greater quality and worth spending a few extra dollars.”

For example, the new Vita Bone Artisan-Inspired Soft Treats from American Pet Nutrition, Ogden, Utah, which are made with real meat, fruit and veggies. The treats are described as thoughtfully crafted and come in five flavors “with smells this good, you’d think we made them for you,” states the company. Varieties are: barbecue chicken with sweet potatoes; country biscuits, sausage and gravy; maple bacon and blueberry; turkey pot roast with red potatoes; and turkey, stuffing and cranberry.

Such culinary inspirations don’t typically contain all of these ingredients; rather, they are delivered through flavor and aroma systems. It’s important to work with suppliers that ensure pet food ingredients, including flavor systems, contain only compounds deemed safe for pets. There are many ingredients recognized as safe for humans that can be detrimental to pets. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), Champaign, Illinois, provides guidance to ensure safety for the intended animal.

Also important to note, not all flavor systems will work in all applications. Important considerations include processing, as well as if the product is dried, refrigerated or wet.

“We provide flavors based on their application,” Trent says. “For example, if an animal treat is baked, it requires a heat-stable flavor system, similar to any other bakery application.

“Flavors are formulated to be shelf-stable, but storage conditions play a contributing factor to quality and safety,” she adds. “For example, it is recommended to keep flavors in a cool and dry place, not in warm environments. Heat can cause flavors to lose potency, while exposure to excessive moisture can result in microbial growth. It is always best to store flavors in the recommended storage conditions to preserve shelf life.”

For the most part, cats and dogs enjoy many of the same flavors as humans. This includes meat, poultry, cheese, seafood, and some fruit and vegetable flavors, according to Trent. Peanut butter is also a favorite with dogs.

Pets may even respond favorably to some herbs and spices, some of which may exert health and wellness benefits. Common additions include chamomile, fennel, ginger and rosemary. Garlic and onion are no-no’s.

Watson has created some innovative, flavorful prototypes. “The quintessential meal on the go for hikers and bikers and active people is a nutrition bar, so we thought that’d be a good place to start,” Watson says. “We developed a bar that was portable, tasty and nutritious, but also for dogs. It needs to be shelf-stable, so you can keep them on hand for whenever the need arises.”

Some of Watson’s product development team believed it would be appealing if the bar could be shared between dog and man. “That is the ultimate in convenience after all; just break it in half and enjoy,” Watson says. “We formulated a blend of nutrients that are essentials for both people and dogs and would help in recovery after exercise. For the prototype bar, we chose ingredients like oats, blueberries and peanut butter, so it would appeal to all palates.”

For felines, Watson employed its edible films technology to develop flavorful snacks. “Our films are made by creating a solution, which is cast in a thin layer on a long, wide, stainless steel belt,” Watson explains. “The water in the solution is evaporated off as the belt passes through drying chambers.”

Watson’s mini-meal bon bon-style snack for cats is edible film formed into a little pouch that encases dry or chewy cat foods. Each packet holds about a tablespoon of food.

“Now the owner has small, pre-measured pouches, with the potential to eliminate overfeeding,” Watson says. “Obesity can be an issue for indoor cats; much of the feline obesity problem is due to portion control. Many people have a problem in gauging the correct amount of food in a serving-size, tending to overestimate how large a portion should be, and thus overfeed.”

This bon bon concept provides additional benefits, including interactive toss play. The film pouch also has to be opened by the cat, which satisfies its natural instinct to tear and shred.

“Flavored film encourages licking, which can help engage the cat for a longer period of time and slow down those that tend to eat too quickly,” Watson adds.

With many entrepreneurs competing in the pet food space with high-end, artisan products, the big players have jumped on the culinary pet food bandwagon. Mars Petcare, Franklin, Tennessee, for example, introduced the Crave brand in July 2017. The carefully crafted cat and dog products are high-protein, meat-first, grain-free recipes, like the diets of their wolf and wildcat ancestors. They come in favorite flavors such as lamb with venison and salmon with ocean fish.

St. Louis, Missouri-based Nestle Purina Petcare Co. now offers Beneful brand Grain Free dry dog food made with simple, wholesome ingredients, including real farm-raised chicken as the number-one ingredient and accents of blueberries, pumpkin and spinach. The company also offers a line of treats including the Beneful brand Break-N-Bites with real beef, barley and apples.

Although pet food products come in a variety of flavors, this tends to be more for the owner than the pet. And, this cannot be discounted, as the product will never make it home for the pet to enjoy if it does not have the gatekeeper’s approval.

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