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Branching Out & Bugging In: Exploring Plant, Yeast & Insect Protein Power for Pets

By Stephanie Clark, PHD, and Michael Johnson//May 1, 2024//

Branching Out & Bugging In: Exploring Plant, Yeast & Insect Protein Power for Pets

By: Stephanie Clark, PHD, and Michael Johnson//May 1, 2024//

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Walking down the pet food aisle today feels like navigating a world of uncharted territory. Gone are the days of limited choices. Now, pet owners are met with a dazzling array of options, not just in terms of flavors and brands, but in the source of protein itself. While novel animal proteins have been around for a while, a new wave of excitement is building around plant, yeast and insect-based proteins emerging as practical alternatives in pet food.

The environmental impact of pet food is becoming a more critical factor for conscientious pet owners. With increased awareness of the environmental footprint of traditional meat production, consumers are actively seeking sustainable pet food options. Plant, yeast, and insect protein pet foods offer an answer to this growing concern; appealing to the eco-conscious pet owner who wants the best for their pet and the planet.

These alternative proteins might seem unusual at first glance, but can be just as tasty and nutritious, if not more so, for your furry companion as traditional meat-based pet foods. This article delves into the world of plant, yeast, and insect protein pet foods, exploring their advantages and disadvantages, the environmental impact of pet food production, and the factors influencing consumer choices.

Plant-Based Proteins: A Sustainable and Nutritious Option

Plant proteins and yeasts are increasingly popular ingredients in pet food formulations. Plant-based proteins, derived from sources such as peas, lentils and soy, provide essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for a pet’s health and well-being. According to Pierre-Luc Gingras, President of Nature’s HUG Pet Food, plants and yeasts “are protein packed, easy to digest, palatable, high quality and all without animal protein.”

These alternative proteins are a welcomed choice for pet owners who prefer to avoid meat in their pet’s diet and may be particularly beneficial for pets with allergies to meat protein.

Mahsa Vazin, founder and CEO of PawCo Foods, stated these proteins are “especially great for pets with food allergies, as animal proteins are the most common allergens for dogs and plant-based proteins are less likely to cause allergic reactions.”

Further, yeasts are a rich source of B vitamins, minerals and high-quality proteins. They also contain beta-glucans which can support immune system health and contribute to a healthy gut microbiota.

Plant and yeast proteins can be a good source of many amino acids, some are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they lack certain essential amino acids. Animals, particularly cats who are obligate carnivores, require specific amino acids such as taurine, which are naturally found in high quantities in animal tissues but are lacking in plant-based ingredients. This requires careful formulation and supplementation to avoid nutritional deficiencies; this can be addressed by combining multiple plant protein sources or adding supplements to the diet to ensure a complete amino acid profile for your pet. Additionally, proper preparation and cooking are crucial to maximize digestibility for some pets.

A significant advantage of plant and yeast proteins is their sustainability.

“The growing and production of alternative proteins like yeast and legumes have a far smaller carbon footprint when compared to traditional animal proteins… a transition from animal proteins to yeast and legumes has a much smaller impact on our planet,” Gingras stated.

Meat production has considerable ecological effect, requiring substantial land and water.

Vazin stated, “Plant-based meat is a great alternative to regular meat. It… allows us to directly benefit from the crops we cultivate, using less land and emitting fewer greenhouse gasses” making them an eco-friendlier choice.

Insect Protein: A Promising New Frontier

Insect proteins are on the rise as an innovative and sustainable alternative to traditional animal protein sources in pet food. Derived from insects like black soldier fly larvae, crickets and mealworms, these proteins offer a nutrient-rich option that includes essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for pet health. Like plant and yeast proteins, the use of insect protein in pet foods aligns with growing environmental and ethical concerns, as insect farming also requires significantly less land, water and feed compared to traditional livestock farming.

“To make 10kg of protein, the (black soldier fly) larvae use 861 square feet of land compared to 27,361 square feet for cows. The water usage of a grubs is 63 gallons vs .15,110 gallons of water for livestock,” said Jeff San Souci, director of marketing at Catit Nuna Cat Food.

Anne Carlson, founder and CEO of Jiminy’s adds, “It may seem unlikely right now, but eventually, insect protein will be very widely spread within the industry. It’s the only way to make the numbers on population square with the limited numbers of available water and land.”

Additionally, insects can be raised on organic waste, contributing to a circular economy by reducing waste and the production of greenhouse gases.

It is crucial to ensure that pet foods containing insect proteins are formulated to meet nutritional needs, including specific amino acids found in traditional meat sources. Carlson noted, “…a cow and a cricket are so different! On a protein level, however, they’re similar. They’re both complete proteins with all the essential amino acids. That’s job one for a pet food protein and we’ve proven insects accomplish that goal.”

In addition, emerging research suggests insect protein may offer other health benefits like improved digestion and prebiotic properties from chitin found in insect exoskeletons. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, supporting gut health and well-being.

Widespread (human) consumer acceptance remains something of a hurdle, as pet owners may have reservations about feeding their pets insect-based diets due to cultural biases. In the U.S., pet humanization drives a great deal of pet product innovation and consumer spending. Simply put, we consumers tend to treat our pets like we treat ourselves. If there is a human trend to which we aspire (be it protein, ingredient, flavor, whatnot) we also want that trend available for our pets. While this has led to more interest in sustainable pet food proteins, it also has a downside: most U.S. consumers do not (yet) eat bugs. Although nearly all of us pet owners have watched our dog or cat gleefully eat an insect, it is difficult for many of us to get past our personal human “ick” factor and let our pets enjoy what they may naturally consume as animals.

Alternative Proteins: In Good Taste

Despite the “ick” factor for some of us humans, our dogs and cats seem to genuinely enjoy the tastes and textures of plant, yeast and insect proteins. Each source offers unique flavors and textures that can vary from traditional meat-based proteins. Yeast proteins, known for their savory umami quality, can enhance the flavor profile, making them more enticing to pets. Insect proteins, such as those from black soldier fly larvae or crickets, introduce a novel flavor and texture that many pets find tasty.

“The palatability is incredible… cats love it,” said San Souci, adding that the key to success with these alternative proteins lies in their careful formulation and the addition of natural flavor enhancers to meet the taste preferences of pets

“The transition to alternative proteins (in pet foods) might seem to be a big one, but a similar transition has been going on in the human space for decades,” said Gingras.

As the pet food industry continues to innovate, the appetite for products containing plant, yeast, and insect proteins is increasingly comparable to traditional options, offering nutritious, environmentally sustainable choices that appeal to a wide range of pets.

Cost Considerations: Balancing Sustainability with Affordability

Alternative protein sources can sometimes be more expensive than traditional proteins. This is due to a developing industry, a niche market, and the need for more efficient production methods. Establishing new production processes can be costly, and smaller insect farms and plant-based protein processing plants may lack the economies of scale of giant meat production facilities.

This can also be seen in innovation, Vazin expressed, adding that “this level of innovation and care in development reflects in the cost.”

San Souci specified, “Sustainability is not free! Until there is scale, it will always be a premium.”

While the initial cost may be higher it is important to consider the long-term picture – the sustainability trend is indeed sustainable.

Says Carlson, “Every other product is seemingly touting some aspect that’s sustainable.  It’s because the word ‘sustainable’ has value.”

As the plant and insect protein pet food markets grow, economies of scale and more efficient production methods will bring the prices down.

Research and Development: Unlocking the Potential

Further research is crucial to establish a comprehensive understanding of the long-term health effects of plant, yeast, and insect protein-based diets on pets. This research should encompass not only nutritional adequacy but also potential impacts on gut health, allergy development and overall well-being. Additionally, research can explore ways to develop more efficient and sustainable/scalable production methods.

Pet Food Sustainability: A World View

The sustainability of pet food production varies significantly between the United States and the rest of the developed world, with distinct approaches influenced by regulatory environments, consumer awareness, and market demands.

In the United States, the pet food industry is substantial, with a strong emphasis on conventional meat-based products. The U.S. market has been relatively slow to adopt more sustainable practices compared to its European and Canadian counterparts. This slower adoption rate can be attributed to a variety of factors, including less stringent regulations on animal welfare and environmental protection, and a consumer base that is only gradually becoming more aware of and concerned with the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions.

As global awareness of environmental issues continues to grow, likely, the gap in sustainability practices in pet food production between the U.S. and other developed nations will narrow; driven by increased consumer demand for sustainable products.

A Pawsitive Move

The growth of plant and insect protein pet food is a significant step towards a more sustainable and ethically conscious future for the pet food industry. By offering healthy and environmentally friendly dietary options for our furry companions, we can ensure their well-being while protecting the planet for generations to come. As consumer awareness grows, regulatory frameworks evolve and technology advances, plant and insect protein pet foods have the potential to become a mainstream choice, shaping a more sustainable and ethical future for pet food production. With collaborative efforts and continued innovation, we can create a world where our love for our pets goes paw in paw with environmental responsibility.


Dr. Stephanie Clark, PhD, CVT, PAS, CFS, Dpl. ACAS of BSM Partners is a board-certified companion animal nutritionist. Michael Johnson is Consumer Insights Principal at BSM Partners, specializing in marketing, branding and consumer selling. BSM is the go-to resource when it’s time for brands to stand out in alternative proteins. By focusing on advanced formulation, nutritional enrichment and rigorous FSQAR guidelines, BSM helps to create a healthier future for pets, ensuring every product is a step forward in quality and care.