Palatability and Pet Food: What Is It Really and Why Does It Matter?

If customers’ pets won’t eat your proprietary brand, that’s a problem. That’s where palatability comes into play. Find out how to produce a pet food that is both nutritious and delicious.

 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

The average human has roughly 5 million scent receptors in their noses—paling in comparison to the hundreds of millions dogs have. The result is, 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 label 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.

Measuring Palatability

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. Results are delivered in primarily three different areas:

First Choice (smell)

This refers to which product the animals go to first. Some labs also subjectively measure the excitement that animals have when they first approach the food.

 Intake Ratio (IR) (taste)

This is how much of the ration they are consuming divided by the total consumption amount. For example, if they ate 600 grams of food total and 300 grams of that was of the test brand, the test brand’s IR would be 50%.

 Consumption Ratio (smell, texture, taste)

This represents how much of a preference the panel showed for one formula over another. For example, if a panel of animals ate 500 grams of the test brand and 200 grams of the control brand, the consumption ratio for the test brand would be 2.5.

Manufacturing Palatability

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 offers 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 label brand outperforms by 5 to 1, 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 who does conduct them on a regular basis is extremely important to the success of your proprietary brand. American Nutrition, for example, has a robust palatability testing protocol and works very closely with one of the leading palatant producers in the industry.

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.

Next in the palatability series, we’ll take a deeper look at the impact palatability can have on your efforts to build a successful private label brand. 

Want more information on palatability testing and private label brand development? Talk with one of our experts. 

— Dustin Keys, food scientist, American Nutrition