Pet Food Fact and Fiction

posted on March 01, 2016 by Dr. Jamie Hartman

There are many choices available for pet food these days.  A walk into a pet store or the pet food aisle can prove to be overwhelming, when really we just want to feed what is best for our pet.  There are many myths about pet food and pet nutrition as well, which can make things even more confusing.  Below I discuss a few of the more prevalent food myths.

First of all, when looking at foods, there are a few things you should always look for.  Somewhere on the packaging (usually in very tiny print on a side), there should be a statement which says the food has been tested to meet or formulated to meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control) standards.  Most major brands available have this, and it means it has been tested or formulated to be nutritionally balanced and have the appropriate amounts of nutrients for your pet.  The second thing you should always look at is to make sure that the food is approved for the appropriate pet and lifestage-for example, puppies should not be fed an adult food or senior food, they should be fed a food for puppies, growth, or all life stages.

One of the first myths seen is that pets should be fed grain free food.  Most commonly this is because people feel grains are contributing to allergies.  Allergies in pets are usually environmental in nature.  It is estimated that only about 10% of allergies are food related.  In fact, less than 1% of dogs have a grain allergy.  Food allergies are formed to proteins molecules in foods, and while there can be allergies to grain proteins, beef and dairy proteins are far bigger culprits.

People also feel that grains are not a nutrient dogs need.  Dogs are omnivores, meaning they need both meat proteins and plant nutrients.  Grains provide carbohydrates for energy, fiber for GI tract health, essential fatty acids for skin and haircoat health, and essential amino acids.  There are rare cases where a grain free food may be advised, but the majority of pets do not need grain free food.

Another myth that is very common in the pet food industry is that corn is a filler.  People feel that corn is a cheap additive for the food and that it may cause allergies.  As we already discussed, most allergies are not food related.  Of foods that cause allergies, the top ingredients for dogs are beef, dairy, and much less likely lamb, egg, soy, and wheat.  Corn does not even make the list.  The same is true for cats, whose biggest allergies are beef, dairy, and fish.

Fillers by definition are foods that provide no nutritional value.  Corn provides nutrients such as protein, essential amino acids, carbohydrates for energy, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, Vitamin E, and beta carotene.  Corn gluten meal is also very easily digested, which allows these nutrients to be easily utilized.  Therefore, corn does have nutritional value and should not been viewed as a filler.

Still another myth seen is the concern of by-products in foods.  By-products are simply products left over from the production of other products.  In human food broths, molasses, pectin, and gelatin are some very common examples.  By definition, by-products can include the liver, kidney, and spleen.  More importantly, it cannot include feathers, skin, hair, hooves, or intestinal contents.  Muscle meat by itself is actually lacking quite a few nutrients such as calcium, minerals, and vitamins.  The organs provide minerals, vitamins, protein, and amino acids.  While by-product sounds like it is a waste product being added to the food, it is actually a very important part of pet nutrition.

Lastly, just a few words on the labelling of pet foods.  Some label words have legal definitions and can only be used when these are met.  Other label words have absolutely no meaning and are merely marketing tactics.  For example, take the word holistic.  Holistic means relating to the whole rather than dissection into parts.  There is not a legal meaning behind this word however, and pet foods may use it however they wish.  By definition, any food that is formulated to meet or is tested to meet AAFCO standards is holistic in that it has all the nutrients needed for the entire pet, not just specific organ systems.

Organic as a term is similar.  It refers to how ingredients are grown, harvested, and processed.  The USDA has defined what organic means as follows:  The organic seal may be displayed if the food is at least 95% organic by weight.  Made with organic means that at least 70% of the content is organic.  If less than 70% of the food is organic, only the individual ingredients may be listed as organic, and only in the ingredient list, the word organic may not be displayed elsewhere on the package.

Natural is another food term that is defined.  It means that a feed or ingredient is derived solely from plant, animal or mineral sources that have not been produced by a chemically synthetic process.  Chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, and other trace nutrients are acceptable however.  Being aware of which words have definitions and which are just marketing tools can help greatly when determining which food to feed your pet.

Many pet food companies strive to meet rigorous standards.  They must meet AAFCO standards for their foods.  Often they are buying ingredients from plants that are inspected by the USDA, and many buy foods that are considered human grade.  Researching your pet’s individual food can help you find the answers to these questions.  Please speak to your veterinarian if you have further questions or concerns regarding what food may be best for your pets.

Here are some quick answers regarding common pet food myths from Purina.  Or watch this informational video from Royal Canin here.