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What does “holistic” mean? (And other pet food marketing gimmicks)

Includes fresh fruits.

Includes fresh fruits.

In Part One of our pet food guide series, we talked about the importance of reading labels and what different ingredients really are and some of the games that manufacturers play (such as splitting ingredients) to make you think there is more or less of something in the bag than there really is.

Unfortunately, there are lots of games that marketers can play with words that have meaning… but that meaning may not be what you think it is. My hope with this post is to give you the knowledge to know what you’re looking at when you read the back of a pet food bag, and to make your decisions based on actual information, not fancy packaging.

So, some quick definitions. AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, is in charge of monitoring pet food manufacturing. They have constructed some very specific definitions. For example, did you know that a food marketed as “beef dinner” is a very different food than one marketed as “with beef” or as “beef flavor”? Who knew, right?

A food that is labeled, for example, “Beef for dogs” must contain 95% beef not counting water for processing, and 70% beef including that water. Only the named meat counts toward the percentage. You can’t have a food labeled “Beef for dogs” that is made up of a large portion of, say, chicken.

However,

if the label reads “Beef dinner” (or entree or platter or formula, etc), then there only needs to be >25% of that ingredient. There’s an awful lot of room between 25% and 95%. And more interestingly, the named ingredient (“beef” in this case) does not even need to be at the top of the ingredients list). And if they want to make it, say, “chicken and fish entree for cats”, the chicken and fish must only add up to >25% in combination and there only need be 3% minimum of any single named ingredient. So your “chicken and fish entree” might only be 3% fish.

And there can be more and different ingredients that are not highlighted in the food’s name.

This can be a problem if your dog has a food sensitivity. Someone has suggested that you try a lamb and rice formula dog food for your pup because he seems to have a sensitive tummy. Lamb and rice can be good for some dogs with possible food sensitivities, so you scan the shelves and pull down a bag of Pro Plan Puppy Lamb and Rice. The front of the bag looks inviting. It’s Lamb and Rice formula, “Lamb is the first ingredient”. And it is, but as we learned in our previous food post, ingredients are listed by weight, and when you take the water weight out of a fresh, unprocessed meat, it tends to drop way down on the list. Where’s the real source of protein in this food coming from? Poultry by-product meal (chicken? turkey? duck? who knows!). So much for avoiding ingredients your dog might be sensitive to.

(If your dog doesn’t have issues with specific ingredients, this is much less of a concern!)

It’s frustrating. You shouldn’t need a PhD to read food labels.

In contrast, look at this food: Nature’s Variety Instinct Lamb Meal and Peas. The first ingredient? Lamb meal. Top of the list, no other hidden meats. Fairly transparent. And yes, more expensive, right?

Did you know that “with” also has a legal definition? “With” means there is between 3% and 25% of that ingredient in the food. It was designed as a way to highlight minor ingredients mostly for marketing purposes. Chicken dinner WITH cheese, for example.

And then at the bottom of the list comes “flavor”. “Bacon flavor dog biscuits” need only contain enough of that ingredient to be detectable.

(I am not sure who does the detecting.)

It seems the further you look, the more confusing it gets.

Recently the trend seems to be toward “Natural” and “Holistic” foods. The ads on television want you to believe that Holistic is better for your pet.

But what is “Holistic”? As far as pet food goes, there is no real (legal) definition.

“All Natural” is a funny one. It means that the ingredients must be “derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources” but can be put through any manufacturing process that the company wants it to as long as they don’t add anything synthetic to it… except for that which is unavoidable for processing. Clear as mud, right?

The same thing with “Human Grade”, which AAFCO considers a “false and misleading” phrase, as all ingredients would have to meet both requirements from the USDA for pet food and the FDA for human food. Technically it’s possible, but it’s unlikely that many pet food processing plants actually meet the grade.

Organic is even more confusing. There is no organic certification for pet food ingredients (and thus no official seal from the National Organic Program which certifies human organic foods), and yet AAFCO allows the word to be used on packaging and nobody’s really going to make a fuss about it. So what’s a word worth? Who knows.

I think the best we can do is look with open eyes and let our minds be reasonable. We all want what’s best for our pets, right? But does “best” have to equate with “super fancy high end organic”? Is it worth paying for labeling that uses terms that don’t really mean anything?

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Cats, Dogs, Food, Health, kittens, Puppies

 

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A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Pet Food Bags Part 1

pidgefoodThe pet food business is certainly booming today, and there are so many different options to choose from. There’s everything from Walmart’s cheap Ol’ Roy to the super-premium, super-expensive holistic foods. How on earth do you begin to evaluate what is on all those shelves and pick something that will be good for your pet as well as your wallet? In this week’s blog post, I hope to give you some of the basic information you need to read pet food labels in the hopes that it will help you be able to choose more wisely based on information instead of marketing and attractive packaging.

Before the mid-1800s, pets were generally fed whatever scraps were left over after the humans ate. It wasn’t until a man named James Spratt came along and invented the first dry dog food, completely revolutionizing how pets in this country are fed, that pet food manufacturing became an industry. These days, pet food is a big, complicated, profit-driven business. Everybody is out to attract consumers with what they think will be the most appealing. “Now with chicken!” “Holistic!” “Gluten free!” Cute happy puppies and catchy jingles on tv! But what does any of this really mean, and what is truly important?

The first thing to look for on the packaging of a food is the AAFCO statement. AAFCO is an organization which analyzes pet foods and guarantees that they meet a certain nutrient profile that is deemed to be acceptable for either adult pets or for growth and reproduction. This can be done in one of two ways– either simply by analysis of the ingredients, or analysis done with the addition of actual feeding trials. It is easy to tell which method was used because one of two statements will be printed on the packaging: ““(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles” or “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition”. Is one better than the other? Potentially. Just because something looks good on paper, so to say, doesn’t mean that it will function as expected when it’s actually ingested. Feeding trials will prove in a real life situation that a formulation really works.hameat

The next thing we’re going to look at is ingredients.

Ingredients are complicated. There are so many games that food manufacturers can play to make their foods look better than what they actually are.

The first thing you need to understand is that ingredients are listed in order of weight. When you look at the meat content of a certain food, and you see that “chicken” is the first ingredient on the list, what you need to remember is that fresh meat is approximately 70% moisture. When you suck all that moisture out during the kibble manufacturing process, the actual nutritional part that is left is going to fall signficantly lower on the list.

However, if you see the words “chicken meal” instead, you’re looking at an ingredient that has already been dehydrated and concentrated. If that is at the top of the list, it’s going to stay there. A named meat meal (chicken, turkey, lamb, whatever) is a great ingredient and something you want to see at the top of the list. Meal is going to offer the highest amount of protein and nutrients.

And the naming of a specific meat source matters. You want to see “Chicken meal”. You do not want to see “Meat meal” or “Meat and bone meal”. Products that list a generalized “meat” ingredient tend to be using whatever they can get the cheapest, and that may change from day to day, from bag to bag. This is especially important if your pet has any food sensitivities.

Another thing to pay attention to is ingredient splitting. Manufacturers will split ingredients (especially grains or carbohydrates) into their individual components, which will move them down the list weight-wise and make them look like less than they really are. Here’s the beginning of an ingredient list from a grain-free dry dog food. Grain-free foods are often marketed as being “better”, but in truth some of them are still relying on carbs, not meat protein, as the bulk of the diet.

Chicken, Potatoes, Yellow Peas, Pea Protein Concentrate, Potato Starch, Chicken Meal, Chicken Fat,

So here we have Chicken as the first ingredient. Remember, though, that chicken is 70% water weight, all of which will disappear during processing. Then come potatoes. Also with a fair bit of water weight to them. But look– down the list– more potato, in the form of starch, and there after that is the coveted Chicken Meal that we should be looking for, because that is where the bulk of your meat-based protein is going to come from. In the middle? Yellow peas, followed by Pea Protein Concentrate. You have to wonder where on the list that chicken would actually fall if the potatoes and the peas were not split up into individual components. Maybe not first, in the spotlight, where people are going to see and and say “oh! This food has lots of chicken in it!”

What about by-products? By-products are looked down upon by some as inferior ingredients, but I think we need to think about what “by-product” really means and what an animal would eat in the wild. Here’s the AAFCO definition for Chicken By-Product Meal: “Chicken By-Product Meal – consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.”
crosbyfood

Sounds kind of gross, but in reality, if left alone with a fresh chicken, a dog is going to eat those squeamish bits too. Chicken feet, for example, are an excellent source of glucosamine, a joint supplement. So while it isn’t what I personally would want to be eating, it is not without nutritional value for an animal. Again, in “meal” form, you have a concentrated source of nutrients.

What it comes down to, at least for me, is that I want a food that gets most of its protein from meat, not grains or carbs. Cats are obligate carnivores. They need to eat meat. Dogs are technically opportunistic scavengers who will eat just about anything, but if you look at their teeth, those are the teeth of a meat-eater. With protein, the source matters when it comes to what the animal’s body is best able to use. Eggs offer the highest and most easily digestible quality of protein, followed by meat, and then followed by grains. Yes, you are going to pay a bit more for a food that is heavy in meat-based protein, but the food will be more nourishing, and you will likely have to feed less of it in order to give your pet all of what he needs. (Which will also result in less poop! Yay!)

At the end of the day, there is no one perfect food. There is no one “best” food. Every cat, every dog, is an individual. What works well for one dog may cause itchy skin in another. What works great for one cat may cause another to lose weight and look unkempt. So there is a little bit of experimentation that goes on in finding the best food to feed your pet. It is ok to switch foods. We always recommend that you do so gradually– start adding small amounts of the new food to the old food, and gradually change the ratio until you’re feeding all the new food. The speed at which you will need to do this depends greatly on your individual pet. The goal is a healthy, active pet in good weight, with a healthy coat, little odor, and a smoothly-running GI system. The right food can do amazing things.

I hope this helps a little bit in the decoding of food labels. It’s a confusing process, and there are so many games that food manufacturers like to play to make their foods more appealing. A little information about the tricks of the trade will go a long way toward helping pet owners be more savvy consumers.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Cats, Dogs, Food, Health

 

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