The Challenges of Buying Pet Food
Before the pet food recall of 2007, there were only two basics to buying good pet food—make sure the first few ingredients were quality meat proteins and no by-products. Common manufacturing practices of grain fractioning and weight padding were overlooked and not understood by the pet owner. Meal grades, global ingredient sourcing and production, along with labelese weren’t even thought about. But now the pet industry is international business, where ingredients and manufactured goods are sourced from all over the world. Not to mention there is poor transparency from ingredient to finished product—with less than a dozen plants producing the majority of pet foods in North America. One plant may produce over 20 different brands. So what does this mean to a pet owner who’s just trying to feed their pet a good food?
Many of my decisions are now made on the reputation of a company. With access to FDA recall postings or warnings, owners can get a better idea of the standards of the company they are interested in. And while glamorous media campaigns paint alluring visuals, these are also major investments—perhaps reducing the investment in product development and ingredients? On the other hand, quality packaging can be a good guide to the investment the company is making in their product. Quality packaging helps retain nutritional integrity and freshness. However, NEVER go by the pretty pictures on the front of the package; always read the ingredient panel. Misleading labels are a major problem in pet foods.
The governing body for pet food labeling and pet food safety is the FDA, nutritional standards for pet foods is set by AAFCO. Nutritional standards are designed to meet minimal requirements, and not for individual animals or specific health conditions. Something most confusing to pet owners is whether the product uses human grade ingredients. By law, pet food manufacturers cannot label any ingredients as human grade—once an ingredient goes into a pet food manufacturing plant, it is pet food. Manufacturers have tried over the years to push these regulations and are eventually slapped on the wrist.
Product names can also be misleading. Basically there are four categories foods fall under: 95%, 25% or dinner, 3% or “with” and flavor. In 95%, at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient (beef or tuna, respectively), not counting the water added for processing and "condiments." With 25% or dinner, at least 25% must be the named ingredient, and the same for 3% respectively. The one I find amusing is “flavor”, the only requirement is that when tested there must be some measurable amount. All of this can be found in more detail on the FDA website.
Understanding an ingredient panel
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight at time of processing. In theory this means there is more of the first ingredient and less per each ingredient as you go down the list. What is not obvious is the use of grain fractioning, where the carbohydrates and starches are individually itemized to allow the meat protein to go to the head of the list. Yet when combined, the mixture of carbohydrates and starches outweigh the meat proteins, giving a very different nutritional profile.
There are also two basic formulas: fixed formulas, meaning the formula is followed specifically. Or there is open-label, where the ingredient volume ratio can shift—even the grade can be replaced, as long as the ingredients remain in the original descending order. If, however, the ingredient panel is changed, the manufacturer can use the existing bag for up to 6 months before it is required to be changed or can use a temporary label to show changes. It’s also important to understand there is no official definition for natural or holistic.
In-favor ingredients vs. bad ingredients
An interesting thing about choice ingredients is that they change. They come in favor and then go out of favor—some for sound reasons, others because of trends. Right now grains are considered evil. Truth be told, it’s not the grains, although there are some we may need to be more cautious of, it’s the abundance of grains. Many dry foods are made with 50% or higher grains and other carbohydrates. Dogs are carnivores, some say opportunistic carnivores, meaning they can manage with meats supplemented with carbohydrates and vegetables. But at these levels, we are asking them to eat the the inverse of the carbohydrate level our carnivorous animals require. With cats it’s even worse. As an obligate carnivore, cats require high levels of meat proteins. And while they can utilize some carbohydrate, they require zero. Don’t be mislead, even grain free foods are high in carbohydrates.
Dry vs. canned vs. raw vs. home-prepared
In the years since commercial pet foods were developed, they have become the panacea, instead of a convenient supplemental option. Dog biscuits appeared at the turn of the century, followed by the introduction of canned dog food in the 20’s. With the tin shortage following World War II, upcoming canned dog foods lost to dry kibble. By the 1950s dry dog food was the top seller and remains so today. In the 1960’s when cats found their way into homes, dry cat food was also introduced—not without life-threatening nutrient deficiencies. Blindness and cardiac issues began to appear in cats fed commercial dry diets solely, which were found to be deficient in nutrients cats must get through meats and organ meats, in particular taurine and arginine.
Throughout the history of pet food, major manufacturers continually discouraged supplementing with other foods or mixing foods, creating a culture of dependence. This dependency has led to fear of change and ignorance of nutritional knowledge for our pets. Dry food should not be the mainstay. It is a convenience option and should be used accordingly—just as you would use quick packaged meals for yourself. Canned foods offer more nutritionally balanced meals given they include “prey” levels of water, the most important nutrient. Just because you see your pet drinking while eating dry foods, they may not be hydrating to optimum levels. In addition, canned foods are less processed and retain more of the naturally occurring nutrients.
Raw foods are the least processed offering naturally occurring nutrients in the most bioavailable form to the body. But not all raws are created equal and qualifying the most appropriate for your pet may take a bit of research and trials to find the one your dog or cat thrive on. Well made home-prepared, whether raw or cooked, offers the most complete control of ingredients and processing. While the thought of home-prepared may be daunting, a little pre-planning, a good recipe or two, and you and your pet will discover the joy of incorporating food made by your own hands.
Choosing the Best food
Understand that the “best” food cannot be found in a bag or can. Nor, is there such a thing as a superior commercial pet food, meaning the most exclusive or top of the line. If you are trying to choose a commercial food, the qualification should be what is the best for your companion. Big difference. Some of the most expensive super premium foods may not be tolerated by your pet, while poorly made, cheap ingredient foods can be readily accepted because of the manipulation of ingredients.
If you truly want the best for your companion know there is nothing more important than good nutrition and good nutrition only comes from quality ingredients in recipes designed for your cat or dog.
Copyright 2014: Terri Symonds Grow
Understand the “best” food cannot be found in a bag or can. Nor, is there such a thing as a superior commercial pet food, meaning the most exclusive or top of the line. If you are trying to choose a commercial food, the qualification should be what is the best for your companion.