What is “Natural” Pet Food?
An article published in this month’s Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Society discusses the “Awareness and evaluation of natural pet food products in the U.S.”. It shared several insights into this topic that is very important to me, any responsible, caring pet family and many fellow veterinarians. I thought I’d share the highlights with you to help you in providing the best food for your dog and cat.
The natural pet food segment is the fast growing portion of the pet food industry with sales jumping from $2.0 billion in 2009 to $3.9 billion in 2012. Why? Many people perceive that diets consisting of whole grains (or grain free), whole meat and few byproducts are healthier for their animals. In fact, this has never been conclusively proven. Most of us are guided by our intuition that whole foods and recognizable ingredients are better for our animals just as they are for us. Truth is, no-one knows for sure. Pet food manufacturers take advantage of this by using catch-words (many of which are undefined or meaningless) and pretty pictures on their packaging in order to fool the consumer into believing that their food is better. As in everything, buyer beware. Some of those ingredients and pretty pictures may make up a very small portion of the food. You may not actually be feeding a diet that’s as good as you think.
Let’s take a look at some of the terminology used in the pet food industry. While the FDA does regulate some portion of the industry, most manufacturers voluntarily adhere to standards created by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This association has no regulatory functions, but is a voluntary group providing advice and standards for companies.
The AAFCO definition of natural states the following: “a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic.” Not exactly the pure, minimally processed foods you were envisioning, huh? Corn, soy and animal by-products are all considered natural in this definition, but may not really be so for our animals.
Many of the premium foods also carry great sounding catch –phrases on their packaging. These sound great, but many are not well defined, or actually carry no meaning attached to the quality of the food. Take a look at these:
Term Defined by a regulatory body? Definition or description
Ancestral or Instinctual NO Generally mean a diet
similar to diets of evolutionary ancestors or foods self-selected in
By-products YES Secondary products produced in
addition to the original product
Fillers NO Digestible carbohydrate and fiber
Holistic NO A philosophy for eating based on
nourishing an animal’s mind,
body and spirit. Has no bearing
Human Grade YES Must comply with FDA regulations
for processing of human food
Organic YES Must comply with USDA regulations
For production of organic food
Grain-Free NO Pet food does not contain grains.
It does contain carbohydrates
Sometimes in even higher
Amounts from foods such as
potatoes, sweet potatoes,
chick and split peas. May be better
carb sources but unproven
This demonstrates how manufacturers can use advertising words and phrases that are not really well defined or regulated by any portion of the industry. It may sound good, but is it? “Holistic” make look good on a package but it is really meaningless when it comes to the ingredients or quality of the food. “Natural” is almost just as unhelpful.
What should you do? I always recommended purchasing the best animal food you can afford. Those available from pet stores are generally better than those in the supermarket. Make sure it’s from a major manufacturer. They often are doing the best they can at monitoring the quality and testing of their ingredients. Generic foods can be risky and have been associated with health issues in pets. The number one selling dog food in the country is sold by the largest retailer in the country. It has one of the poorest ingredient lists of any food. Veterinarians often joke that it’s made from shoes and old phone books. While that isn’t true, there is an awful lot of variation in the ingredients in pet foods. Don’t be misled by phrases such as those above or by pretty pictures on the package. Look for a food that lists whole meat as the first ingredient. Make sure the package states that the food meets the AAFCO standards for basic nutrition which means it is guaranteed to be balanced and provide the minimal ingredients your animal needs.
If you have questions ask your veterinarian. Be aware that the pet food industry courts us vets pretty heavily so you may not receive an unbiased opinion. (We’ll talk about “prescription” diets in a future post. Raw diets too.) If your veterinarian doesn’t seem very knowledgeable, ask another. We all have to educate ourselves on animal foods too. After all, we have our own to feed.