By Jean Hofve, DVM
A trip down the pet food aisle these days will boggle the mind with all the wonderful claims made by manufacturers for their particular products. But what’s the truth behind all this marvelous hype? You might be very surprised…let’s take a look.
1. Niche claims. Today, if you have an indoor cat, a canine athlete, a Persian, a Bloodhound, or a pet with a tender tummy or itchy feet, you can find a food “designed” just for your pet’s personal needs. Niche marketing has arrived in a big way in the pet food industry. People like to feel special, and a product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a general product like “puppy food.” But the reality is that there are only two nutritional standards against which all pet foods are measured (adult and growth/gestation/lactation)—everything else is just marketing.
2. “Natural” and “Organic” claims. The definition of “natural” adopted by AAFCO is very broad, and allows for artificially processed ingredients that most of us would consider very unnatural indeed. The term “organic”, on the other hand, has a very strict legal definition. However, some companies are adept at evading the intent of these rules. For instance, the name of the company or product may be intentionally misleading. For instance, some companies use terms like “Nature” or “Natural” in the brand name, whether or not their products fit the definition of natural.
3. Ingredient quality claims. A lot of pet foods claim they contain “human grade” ingredients. This is a completely meaningless term—which is why the pet food companies get away with using it. Only one pet food company has been given permission to use this term by the FDA: The Honest Kitchen. They can call their ingredients human grade because they are maintained in a human-edible condition from beginning to end. Others may start with “human grade” ingredients, but at some point they become “human inedible” or “pet food grade” (usually the minute they leave the slaughterhouse in an unsterilized, unrefrigerated truck).
The same applies to “USDA inspected” or similar phrases. The implication is that the food is made using ingredients that are passed by the USDA for human consumption, but there are many ways around this. For instance, a facility might be USDA-inspected during the day, but the pet food is made at night after the inspector goes home.
The terms “premium,” “super-premium,” and “holistic” are not legally defined, and are also meaningless. The use of any of these terms should be viewed as a “Hype Alert.”
4. “Meat is the first ingredient” claim. A claim that a named meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) is the #1 ingredient is generally seen for dry food. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight, and raw chicken weighs a lot, since contains a lot of water. It is then diluted to create a slurry with about 10% chicken and 90% plain water. If you look further down the list, you’ll see ingredients such as chicken meal, poultry by-product meal, meat-and-bone meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, etc. Animal-source meals are rendered; that is, they have had the fat and water removed, leaving a dry, lightweight protein powder. It doesn’t take much chicken + water to weigh more than a great big pile of this powder, so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with very little “chicken” to be found. This has become a very popular marketing gimmick, and it’s now used even in premium and “holistic” brands. So you can just ignore this claim; it’s now just a sign of a smart marketing department.
5. Special ingredient claims. Many of the high-end pet foods today rely on the marketing appeal of people-food ingredients such as fruits, herbs, and vegetables. However, the amounts of these items actually present in the food are tiny; and the items themselves are usually scraps and rejects from processors of human foods—certainly not the whole, fresh ingredients they want you to picture. These ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and are merely a marketing gimmick.
6. Lifestages and Lifestyles. Depending on who’s doing the talking, you’ll hear that cats have from 3 to 7 different lifestages; and there’s a special food for every single one! But in nature, once a kitten is weaned, it eats the same diet (a variety of prey species) for the rest of its life. When it comes to the nutritional standards that pet foods must meet, there are only two life stages: adult, and everything else: gestation (pregnancy), lactation (nursing) and growth (kittens). All those other designations are merely slight manipulations of ingredient proportions, and possibly the addition of a few special ingredients. A food labeled “all life stages” meets the more stringent requirements for growth. There is no life stage called mature, babycat, juvenile delinquent, or anything else, no matter what pet food companies and veterinary organizations may want you to think.
7. Ingredient source and quality. Just as there are different grades of eggs and meat, there are different grades of the animal products used in pet food. The same ingredient name, such as “lamb meal,” may cost the manufacturer anywhere from a few dollars a pound to a few cents. As you might imagine, the price reflects the quality. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to tell from the label (or the price) what grade the manufacturer is using. Similarly, ingredients may come from China, Africa, or Bangladesh, and the ingredient name will be the same—but the quality will be far different from ingredients produced in the U.S. Some countries, like Thailand, actually have stricter laws for food processing than the U.S., but as we saw in the 2007 melamine scandal, other countries have far less stringent laws, which may or may not be enforced.
It’s a jungle out there…Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely sophisticated over the last few years. It’s important to know what is hype and what is real, so you can make informed decisions about what to feed your pets.
For a comprehensive look at pet food–the industry, the nutrition-disease connection, and what and how to feed your cat for optimal health–see Dr. Jean’s Amazon best-selling e-book, What Cats Should Eat, available online or as a PDF in our eBookstore.