Pet food marketing deception is taking over the pet food industry in ways that are making veterinarians feel like we are banging our heads against a wall. With beautiful pictures of whole foods in their native state on diets self labelled as natural, human grade, and holistic, who can resist the temptation to feed one’s pet these amazing diets? Read on and learn about what these terms mean and how to properly understand a pet ingredient food label, and you may have a change of heart.
Natural Pet Food
The current definition of “natural” pet food as per the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is:
“A feed or feed 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 produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”
The biggest tell here is “..having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation.” To be fair these processes are common to nearly all pet foods and are necessary components to putting ingredients into a kibble form. On the other hand, does this sounds natural to you? Does this justify labeling a diet as natural when nearly all diets fit this description?
In addition, without research and development facilities that are utilizing veterinary clinical nutritionists, actual feeding trials, and quality control, the vast majority of the diets out there are not even performing this processing correctly; to the extent that the dietary nutrients derived from the ingredients are in often not in a form that is digestible for pets. Just how vast is this deficiency?
Currently, there are only three pet food companies that have research and development facilities overseen by clinical nutritionists: Royal Canin, Hills, and Purina. Go to Pet Smart some time and look at the number of diets for sale that are not one of these three manufacturers and the number of diets that do not have veterinary clinical nutritionists and R & D research facilities will astound you.
To get a clear picture of the pet food marketing deception, let’s take a look at the ingredient label of a popular pet food that is labeled as natural AND holistic (read on for holistic, you are going to just love what a holistic pet food label means!).
Let us start with ingredient #2, chicken meal. This is the definition of chicken meal per AAFCO:
“Chicken meal is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean chicken flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. Meal here is used in the sense of ‘an ingredient which has been ground or otherwise reduced in particle size.'”
Chicken meal is generally much higher in protein than the animal is in its native state because much of the water content has been separated out. Processing into chicken meal also removes micro-organism contaminants such as bacteria and viruses and provides a convenient and cost effective method to provide adequate crude protein in the food to form the pet food into kibble.
To be sure, nearly all diets include some form of animal “meal,” but not all diets label themselves as natural. It most certainly does not resemble the whole food beauty we see in pictures on the front of the bags of natural pet food.
However, you may read on through the rest of the pet food label and think to yourself that the meal is okay, since clearly this diet has other natural stuff in it like cranberries, blueberries, apples, and kelp. Unfortunately, you would be falling victim to more pet food label deception once again! You see, all ingredients listed after the first 7 ingredient of a pet food label collectively represent only 1% of the total content of the food. That would amount to perhaps one or two cranberries in an entire bag of food.
Holistic Pet Food
Okay, so natural pet food is an epic fail and hardly likely to be produced with any research and development and quality control experts or feeding trials. At least we have holistic diets to fall back on. Below is the definition of a holistic diet as per AAFCO:
There is none! There is NO set of criteria that designate a diet as holistic!
Human Grade Pet Food
Sorry once again, since the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers all pet foods to be “animal feed,” AAFCO has no definition for this term either.
Bottom Line Common Sense Pet Food Selection
I am not a cheerleader for any one particular pet food so I keep my recommendations to three basic criteria for the selection of pet food:
1.) AAFCO certification at a bare minimum
2.) Research and development facility overseen by veterinary clinical nutritionists that actual engaged in feeding trials (we know who currently has these)
3.) Take the advice of your veterinarian for specific prescription therapeutic diets for nutritional management of disease where clinically applicable
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a globally recognized expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.