Premium! Super Premium! Ultra Premium! You are standing in an aisle at your local pet supply store, in front of a colorful shelf of pet foods, all of them vying for your attention and your hard-earned money. You wonder which food is the best. Surely the fancy ones up here are better, healthier, than the less expensive products in the back of the store, you think.
But is this assumption true? To address that question, we need to know what makes a pet food “premium” (or “super premium” for that matter). You might be surprised to learn that “premiumization” is a marketing term that was first used in the alcohol industry but has since spread to clothing, health and beauty, human foods, and now pet products. It provides a way for manufacturers to tap into consumer desire for luxury goods by presenting products that provide “tangible or imaginary surplus value” at a higher price range than typical products. These products may actually be higher quality than average, or they may just be perceived to be higher quality; one thing is for certain – they are always more expensive!
And it turns out that price can alter our perception of a product. A fascinating study in 2007 by the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University demonstrated that how a product is priced and marketed can alter our brain activity and how we perceive the product. In the study, volunteers were placed in an MRI scanner and given samples of wine, differentiated only by price. They gave participants samples of the same wines twice, pretending that they were different wines and describing each sample as either inexpensive ($5-10/bottle) or expensive ($45-90/bottle). The volunteers reported that the “expensive” wine tasted better than the same wine presented as an inexpensive product. Moreover, not only did the people report that the more expensive wine tasted better, MRI scans of their brains showed that activation of certain areas of the brain were also enhanced with increasing reported price of the wine. The volunteers really did perceive that the wine tasted better, just because of the higher price.
So, what about pet food? Obviously our pets are not influenced by the cost of their food, but we as their owners certainly are. The premium pet food market has been growing steadily. In 2001, it accounted for $5.7 billion (yes, with a B!) out of $12.9 billion in total pet food sales (44%). In 2015, premium foods accounted for $14.5 billion of the $23.7 billion in total pet food sales (61%). Clearly pet owners are paying more for their pet food in increasing numbers, but is this leading to healthier pets?
The challenge is that the designation of a pet food as “premium”, like with all other consumer products, is at the whim of marketing departments. There are no standards that need to be met other than to advertise the product in a way that will justify its higher cost to the consumer. In general, brands that market themselves in this category may follow a lot of the current trends – avoidance of certain ingredients such as grains or by-products, addition of ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, or herbs, inclusion of probiotics, meat-as-the-first-ingredient, and similar. But do any of these factors actually make the diet healthier?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer to this question. All pet foods that are presented as containing all essential nutrients (AKA “complete and balanced”) for pets must follow the same standards – they are supposed to have a minimum of each essential nutrient (see our discussion of nutritional adequacy standards). In theory, all commercial pet foods should keep your pet healthy but not all food manufacturers have the same knowledge, quality control standards, and attention to nutritional detail. For sure some pets do better on some brands and diets than others, but the difference often isn’t whether the product is designated as “premium” or not. Compared to less expensive brands that you might find at a grocery or big box store, some premium brands may have higher digestibility and higher amounts of more expensive ingredients such as animal fat, protein, and fish oil, or different amounts or ratios of other essential nutrients well above the required minimums. But that doesn’t mean that you can you judge a pet food by its label or price – some less expensive products may actually be better choices for your pet than more expensive options if the companies that make them have more experience or knowledge or do more testing of their products.
Many of the differences between these categories of foods are based on emotion, not nutrition or scientific evidence. And the difference is probably even less when you compare “premium” with “super premium”. Sure, you pay more for blueberries, caviar and smoked salmon in your dog food, but these ingredients are typically present only in small amounts and do not bring nutrients to the food that could not be obtained from less fancy sources. Similarly, there is no proof that including probiotics (live, beneficial bacteria) in pet food has any health benefits and one study showed that none of the diets tested actually had live bacteria present, despite being listed in the ingredient list. The manufacturer’s goal of using these ingredients may not be to make the diet healthier, it’s often to justify the higher cost, score higher on pet food rating sites, and, most importantly, to make you feel good about buying it for your pet. In many cases, the companies’ profits are higher, but your pet’s health is no different.
Therefore, rather than getting hung up on premium or not, you should have a heart-to-heart with yourself and anyone you share financial decisions with and figure out how much you can realistically afford to pay for your pet food. Once you know your budget, you should look for the best food available within that budget, regardless of how it is marketed. Worry about the company that makes the food, their track record, and their attention to quality control, and don’t be swayed just because the diet has a lot of great-sounding ingredients. Approaching pet food purchases in this way will help ensure that the food you purchase is a good value rather than just appealing to the part of your brain that assumes that higher priced = better.
Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN
Dr. Cailin Heinze is a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® and the Chief Academic Officer of the Mark Morris Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote optimal companion animal health by providing educational opportunities for veterinary students and veterinarians in clinical nutrition. She also does some part-time consulting work for Balance IT, a company that makes software and supplements for home-cooked pet diets. She is an expert in home-cooked diet formulation and general pet nutrition and has a special interest in feeding pets with kidney disease and cancer.
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