Natural treats are more numerous than ever, and educated consumers expect the snacks to have many wholesome attributes.

The natural treats category is growing, and so is the way it is defined. Pet owners are looking for many different types of treats that fit under the natural umbrella because they see these treats as having important benefits for their furry best friends, and manufacturers are constantly developing new ways to deliver those benefits.

“The natural treat category is exploding,” says Kevin Malnor, vice president of sales and marketing for Green Bay, Wis.-based Vital Essentials. “More pet parents are recognizing that the food and treats their pets consume directly impact their health and vitality.”

Malnor adds that within the natural treats category, freeze-dried treats are gaining. The rationale behind these single-protein snacks is that dogs and cats are natural carnivores that thrive on nutrients from the meat, bones and organs of other animals they would eat in their natural environment.

Vital Essentials, which consists of premium-quality, custom-sourced USDA meat, bone and/or organ derived from a single species, are either frozen or freeze-dried, and uses a proprietary 48- hour freeze-drying process to lock in vital nutrients without cooking the raw meat. The treats do not contain artificial preservatives, colorings, flavorings, rendered materials, corn, potatoes or rice. Vital Essentials recently launched Vital Treat Freeze-Dried Turkey Fries, and also three new VE Raw Bar items: duck heads, pig snouts and moo sticks.

“You will not find any of the previously listed ingredients in any Vital Essentials’ products,” Malnor says. “VE Vital Treats are grain free, gluten free, guilt free. A healthy, natural high-value reward for your pet.”

Limited-ingredient treats are becoming more popular than ever, says Lindsey Stluka, who handles graphic design, marketing and sales for Herbsmith, Inc., based in Oconomowoc, Wis.

“You see ingredient decks that are getting smaller and smaller,” she says. “Consumers are looking for treats that don’t contain any unnecessary ingredients. In an effort to weed out allergies, consumers are turning more and more to single-ingredient freeze-dried or dry-roasted treats. They are doing their research, they are asking the manufacturers to provide proof of ingredients going into their products.”

Herbsmith’s newest treats are Smiling Dog Soft and Chewy treats that are free of corn, soy, potatoes, and grain.

“We found that the soft and chewy treat space was sorely lacking in quality products,” Stluka says. “Also, because we use real ingredients in our treats, we have found that we do not need to add fake flavorings for dogs to love them.”

Limited ingredient is just one feature that consumers seek when they shop for natural treats for their pets. “People become more educated in the category and they start looking at other things beyond natural,” says Glenn A. Novotny, president of Emerald Pet Products in Walnut Creek, Calif. “They all rank very close to top priority for most customers.”

Emerald Pet recently launched Purely Prime Tender Turkey Bacon Strips and Purely Prime Tender Turkey Sausage Slices Dog Treats. They are made in the USA with U.S. ingredients and are soy free, dairy free, grain free and gluten free. The Bacon slices are available in Turkey, Turducky, or Turkey & Chicken and are packaged in a two-sided bacon box. Sausage slices are available in Original Turkey, Turkey plus Pumpkin & Whole Chia Seed, or Turkey plus Carrot & Quinoa.

Whether a product has just one ingredient or several, many industry experts say that the term natural should only be applied to products made with wholesome raw materials that are produced responsibly.

“It has to do with consciousness and sourcing of ingredients,” says Susan Goldstein, co-CEO of Southport, Conn.-based Earth Animal. “That defines natural.”

Earth Animal recently launched No-Hide Pork chews, an alternative to rawhide. The company sources humanely raised pork from U.S. farms. The pork is rolled and then cooked in a USDA-certified, human food processing facility in the U.S. The resulting product is more digestible than rawhide, Goldstein says, so it is safer for dogs.

Also, No-Hide is chemical free and has no preservatives, coloring agents or iodized salt. No-Hide is available in various sizes for different size dogs.

The growth of natural treats points to a larger trend, says Goldstein.

“We’re going back to the way things used to be,” she explains. “We are moving in the direction of more simple ingredients, the simpler the better.”

The Ultimate Simplicity

One cannot get much more simple than single-ingredient treats, another big trend in natural.

Recently, 4 Paws Butcher Shop launched four varieties of single ingredient jerkies: Chicken, Turkey, Pork and Wagyu Beef. Len Horowitz, founder and CEO, says the jerkies are all USDA farm-raised, human-grade proteins, produced and packaged in the USA.

“We use the best cuts of meat and poultry from the breast to the loin,” he says. “We do not use glycerin or salt on our jerkies. It’s as pure and natural as you can get.” The company has offices in New York and a processing facility in Pennsylvania.

The company also introduced a burger collection, with Chicken, Turkey and Duck, Beef and Wagyu Beef, and Pork blended with fresh fruits and vegetables to make a low-calorie, healthy treat.

Single-ingredient and made-in-USA are the top trends right now, Horowitz says, and the next most important trend is straightforward labeling. Consumers who read labels might find that some products are not wholesome after all.

“There is no place for sugars, coloring and fillers in natural dog treats,” he says.

In addition to reading labels, pet owners are looking to retailers as the source of expert advice about treats. The right advice, and the right natural treat, can help build a relationship with the consumer.

“The pet parent wants the best for their pup and if they can rely on the retailer for advice on what treat to feed, they have earned the customer’s respect and loyalty,” Horowitz says. “The value of a product is only realized when the quality of the product is unquestionable.”  PB

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