Pet food

The chemistry of kibble

The billion-dollar, cutting-edge science of convincing dogs and cats to eat what’s in front of them.

Despite the cryptic name and anonymous office-park architecture, the nature of the enterprise located at AFB International is clear the moment you sit down for a meeting. The conference room smells like kibble. One wall, entirely glass, looks onto a small-scale kibble-extrusion plant where men and women in lab coats and blue sanitary shoe covers tootle here and there pushing metal carts. AFB makes flavour coatings for dry pet foods.

To test the coatings, the company needs to make small batches of plain kibble to put them on. The coated kibbles are then served to consumers: Spanky, Thomas, Skipper, Porkchop, Mohammid, Elvis, Sandi, Bela, Yankee, Fergie, Murphy, Limburger, and some 300 other dogs and cats that reside at the company’s Palatability Assessment Resource Center (PARC), about an hour’s drive from its St. Louis–area headquarters.

AFB’s vice president at the time, Pat Moeller, a few other staff members, and I are seated around an oval table. Moeller is middle-aged, likable, and plainspoken. He has a small mouth with naturally deep-red lips and a pronounced Cupid’s bow, but it would be inaccurate to say he has a feminine appearance. Rather, he has the look of an Army man, which he was when he helped develop foods for NASA’s Apollo program. The fundamental challenge of the pet food professional, Moeller is saying, is to balance the wants and needs of pets with those of their owners. The two are often at odds.

Dry, cereal-based pet foods caught on during World War II, when tin rationing put a stop to canning. Owners were delighted. Dry pet food was less messy and stinky and more convenient. As a satisfied Spratt’s Patent Cat Food customer of yesteryear put it, the little biscuits were “both handy and cleanly.”

To meet nutritional requirements, pet food manufacturers blend animal fats and meals with soy and wheat grains and vitamins and minerals. This yields a cheap, nutritious pellet that no one wants to eat. Cats and dogs are not grain eaters by choice, Moeller is saying. “So our task is to find ways to entice them to eat enough for it to be nutritionally sufficient.”

This is where “palatants” enter the scene. AFB designs powdered flavour coatings for the edible extruded shapes. Moeller came to AFB from Frito-Lay, where his job was to design, well, powdered flavour coatings for edible extruded shapes.

“There are,” he says, “a lot of parallels.” Cheetos without the powdered coating have almost no flavor. Likewise, the sauces in processed convenience meals are basically palatants for humans. The cooking process for the chicken in a microwaveable entrée imparts a mild to nonexistent flavour. The flavour comes almost entirely from the sauce—by design. Says Moeller, “You want a common base that you can put two or three or more different sauces on and have a full product line.”

Pet foods come in a variety of flavours because that’s what humans like, and we assume our pets like what we like. We’re wrong. “For cats especially,” Moeller says, “change is often more difficult than monotony.”….. Read the full article