Insect-based dog treats and foods were first introduced into the commercial pet food market quite recently – about 6 years ago. While early products were primarily offered as treats, complete and balanced dog foods that contain various types of insect meals are increasingly available. I have written about the insect species that have been studied as alternative and sustainable protein sources and about studies of their nutrient value to dogs. Most recently, researchers have examined marketing approaches, benefits claims, and consumer response to these new foods.
Marketing Insect-based Foods
A marketing study was recently conducted by researchers at several European universities, plus a representative of a company that produces insect ingredients for human and pet foods. They surveyed the types of insect-containing pet foods currently for sale, the species of insects that are used, the various label claims that are being made, and last, how dog and cat owners are responding to these foods (1). They studied the global pet food market, including the US. Their results provide insight into the growth of this new pet food segment plus some “food for thought” regarding how these products are being promoted.
How Many Brands?
Globally, the number is still pretty low. A total of 43 separate brands were identified. The majority of these were dry dog foods, followed by (surprisingly) canned/wet dog foods. Insect-based cat foods are still pretty rare. Although Europe currently leads the way in number of products, the insect pet food market in the US is definitely growing.
What Bugs are Used?
Of the 43 brands of foods and treats, the majority (~ 35) were produced with black soldier fly larvae (probably included as a dried protein meal). Five products used yellow mealworms.
What Label Claims are Made?
As I have written in Dog Food Logic and in this blog, label claims on pet foods, in particular health-related claims, are notoriously under-regulated, often inflated, and almost invariably without strong scientific support. Pet food companies are allowed to make extensive health and wellness claims for their products with no obligation to substantiate those claims with evidence, provided they use the correct words to do so (see “Dog Food Marketing” for examples). It is the wild west out there and unsubstantiated (some may say misleading) claims abound. Sadly, it appears that insect-based pet foods have already jumped into the claims race arena.
Here is a list of the most commonly made claims (and what, if any evidence exists). These are listed in order of frequency.
- Hypoallergenic: A health claim that insect-based foods are “hypoallergenic” (or a term that implies a benefit to allergic dogs), was found in 37 of the 43 products (86%). The presumption appears to be that because proteins that are of insect origin are novel to most dogs, that these foods will not trigger an immune response when fed. Never mind that there is no actual scientific evidence to support this, nor that most of the foods that are currently marketed are not single-protein foods (a basic requirement for using a food as a novel protein source). Yet, the claims are there.
- Sustainability: The second most common claim (74 % of the products), and one that actually has some legs, is that insect-based protein sources are more environmentally friendly and have a lower environmental footprint when compared with many traditional pet food ingredients. As far as benefits go, the evidence that we have supports this one.
- Gut Health and Digestibility: There is ample evidence that insect-based foods are comparable to traditional processed dog foods in terms of protein digestibility and amino acid content. There is a bit (not much) of evidence that insect-based protein ingredients modulate the gut microbiome. However, it is a pretty large jump from a few studies to a food label claim of “improves gut health”. As with most health-related label claims, this one still has a few bugs.
- Other Health Claims: Seven food labels carried claims of improved immune health, high antioxidant activity, or improved brain health for aging dogs (one food). All three of these claims lack strong evidence for insect proteins in general and especially for the foods themselves.
What Do Owners Think?
The researchers analyzed 533 unsolicited product reviews that had been posted on a popular brand review website. Although no data were provided (?), they state that the majority of owners reported that their pet liked the food. When the content of the reviews was analyzed, only 36 (~7 %) mentioned sustainability as a perceived benefit. Mention of other label-claimed benefits was even lower. Nine owners (1.6 %) mentioned hypo-allergenicity and less than 1 percent of the reviewers identified digestibility, gut health, immune health or aging benefits. Hmmmm……..
Up on My Box
Have not been up here in a while. First, let me start by stating that I am wholeheartedly in favor of exploring new pet food ingredients that are more environmentally sustainable, healthy, and safe for dogs. Two categories of these that are receiving a lot of attention are new plant-based protein sources and insect-based protein sources. Research to date on insect proteins is promising. Meals produced from insects have been shown to perform as well as several animal-based protein sources and have amino acid profiles that make them suitable for inclusion in dog foods. Feeding studies show that dogs like these foods and that, at least when fed for relatively short periods, they are safe. All good so far.
How did we jump from science showing decent digestibility values, acceptable protein/amino acid indices, and acceptable palatability to…… “hypoallergenic“, “supports gut health“, “improves immune function” and……for goodness sake….. “improves brain function for aging dogs“??
Once again, marketing trumps science. If a pet food is making a claim of “improved gut health” on its label, then, call me picky, but I would expect that there are data showing that that particular FOOD has been demonstrated to lead to measurable improvements in a group of dogs intestinal health. Such data do not exist. Rather, the rationale behind that particular claim is that feeding some insect protein meals led to changes in concentrations of certain gut microbes, some of which are pathogenic. Such changes are reported for a multitude of diet modifications (see “Your Dog’s Gut Microbiome” for details). Definite health effects of such changes in dogs have not yet been demonstrated. I have not located published studies that show that feeding a dog a food containing insect protein has significantly improved intestinal health.
The same is true for the most popular claim on these labels – hypoallergenic. (Note: This actual term is not allowed in the US. Instead, products are marketed as “supporting skin health“). Claims of reduced allergenicity and improved skin health are made solely because of the widespread belief that a novel protein source is less likely to cause an allergic reaction in dogs than protein sources that the dog has been previously fed. No matter that this is only true for the small number of dogs who actually have food-related allergies. Rather, what is important in this context, is that, I have found no studies showing that feeding an insect-based food to dogs leads to reductions in allergic responses or improved skin health. Nada. None. Zip. Yet the claims are made and food is sold. The authors even note that “In Europe, some veterinarians are already prescribing insect-based pet foods for allergic dogs and cats“.
Take Away for Dog Folks
So, bottom line, Yes, insect-based protein sources are a potentially more sustainable approach to providing protein to our dogs. Yes, data so far suggest that their nutrient value is comparable to many of the animal-protein meals that are currently used in processed pet foods. And, yes, so far, they seem safe and acceptable to dogs. Still, it does NOT follow from this that insect-based dog foods are the new Holy Grail of pet foods that will cure your dog’s allergies, solve his digestive issues, improve his immune response, and make him a very smart older dog. Yet, those label claims are already out there.
Buyer beware. Be skeptical.
Off of box.
Cited Study: Siddiqui SA, Brunner TA, Tamm I, et al. Insect-based dog and cat food: A short investigative review on market claims and consumer perception. Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology 2023; 26: 10202.