Pet food manufacturers mostly for marketing driven reasons are constantly on the lookout for new ingredients. In an attempt to attract pet owners’ attention the manufacturer with the most novel and unusual ingredients typical scores more sales. However, copy cats quickly take away from that uniqueness and the search goes on. Additionally, over the last couple years truly novel ingredients have become more important as our pets suffer from food allergies that by now have turned into a major disease of epidemic dimensions. Other reasons for constantly exploring new stuff are the economics involved in pet food manufacturing. Quality plays certainly a role and lately one more reason can be added: Scarcity.
Dr. Greg Aldrich, PhD, President of Pet Food & Ingredient Technology Inc., a company facilitating innovations in foods and ingredients for companion animals recently wrote an article for the PetFoodIndustry.com, an on-line information service for pet food professionals. He named as reasons for this scarcity “A number of staple pet food ingredients are becoming more difficult to purchase, in part because of: Competition within the industry fueled by growth; competition with other industries such as aquaculture for similar ingredients; regional droughts and shortages and decreasing waste in human food processing.“
According to Dr. Aldrich, aside from scarcity “there are also growing concerns about pathogenic bacterial contamination, declines in quality with changes in the mix of by-products reaching rendering, an increase in cases of allergy and hypersensitivity to conventional ingredients and growing demand for antioxidant carotenoids and essential fatty acids.”
Coming back to scarcity. apparently at the top of the scarcity list are marine products like proteins and fatty acids. Reasons for that are a growing human populations, increasing knowledge regarding fatty acid requirements and over fishing. All these are expected to put greater pressures on fisheries,. The resulting outcome will be that fish stocks will soon be incapable of supporting demand affecting people and their pets.
Dr. Aldrich asks: “What can we do about it? One emerging option to this dilemma is plankton. It might seem like a real stretch, right? Well, not quite as big a stretch as you might think. A number of plankton or "microalgae" are suitable for industrial exploitation. While still somewhat futuristic, efforts have been under way for more than 50 years to grow, harvest and evaluate scores of organisms for productivity, nutrient composition, safety, agro/aqua cultural sustainability and economics.
These varied species of plankton originate in large bodies of water such as the world's oceans and lakes.
By definition, they are floating or drifting organisms incapable of controlling their own motility or direction and fill an ecological niche rather than a phylogenic or taxonomic family. They are commonly referred to as phytoplankton, zooplankton and bacterioplankton.
These mostly unicellular organisms are at the ground floor of the ocean's food chain, supporting a broad diversity of organisms, and are the primary source of numerous essential nutrients like long chain fatty acids that accumulate with each successive trophic order of marine organisms. In other words, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are derived from their diet, rather than their own synthesis, and these fatty acids are produced by plankton.
The more commercially viable plankton can be found in the families of green algae, cyanobacteria and protists. They have crazy sounding names, including such green algae organisms as Chlorella, Dunaliella and Haematococcus, cyanobacterium such as Arthrospira (Spirulina) and Aphanizomenon, dinoflagellates such as Crypthecodinium and chromista such as Shizochytrium.
Some of these organisms are photosynthetic, thus taking CO2, nitrogen and light and producing valuable carbon compounds such as simple sugars and amino acids. Others are heterotrophic organisms that utilize simple sugars and salts along with heat to produce more complex molecules such as carotenoids and long chain fatty acids.
Plankton are composed of proteins, carbohydrates and fats that rival some terrestrial proteins for example, Spirulina can exceed 60% protein, 13% carbohydrate and 6% fat on a dry matter basis. Plankton proteins are nutritionally available, although somewhat lower in quality than casein or soy. This is most likely due to a slightly lower protein digestibility combined with a lower ratio of essential amino acids such as methionine and histidine.
A viable source for most essential water soluble vitamins, carotenoids and tocopherols (vitamin E), plankton are also reported to be a rich and nutritionally available source of iron, selenium and iodine, among other minerals. Plankton are reputed to possess numerous nutraceutical compounds and anti inflammatory mediators. Generally speaking, plankton are safe for consumption but the amount in the diet may need to be limited. Under certain stressed growing conditions, though, toxic agents can be a concern.
While nutritional utilization of the plankton biomass may have been the original intent, today the principal consideration in the production of plankton is for harvest of specific nutrients. In other words, plankton are being farmed in ponds and grown in fermentation tanks for the production of specific molecules such as long chain fatty acids. This is the application that holds the greatest near term use for human foods and pet foods.”
While it is good to know that pet food manufacturers are alert and innovative enough to make sure there will always be ample supply of pet food, it also appears as if there will always be plenty of reasons to be concerned about what we are feeding our companion animals.