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Cracking the Pet Food Label Code

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By this point, most health-conscious consumers have trained themselves to scan the labels at the supermarket for the product which guarantees “weight loss” “low fat”, “whole grain”, “organic”, “holistic”, or “natural”. With those few magic words thrown out, the consumer feels confident that the item they are purchasing will offer the appropriate and optimal nutrition they require. Naturally, when the same words appear on our pet food labels, we assume it means the formula is healthy for our dog or cat. But have you ever bought a supposedly “low fat food”, only to find out that it contained many other harmful substances and a whole new set of problems? Brace yourself, because you’re in for the same shock when it comes to what is lurking in most commercially available pet foods.

Although it seems to make sense, we simply cannot select our pet’s food the same way we select our own. You may or may not be aware by now that there is very little regulation of pet foods in the United States. The FDA and USDA rarely get involved with what is fed to our beloved companion animals. Even pet foods that are marked as “natural” may still not meet the biology-driven nutritional requirements of your dog or cat. In order to insure that the food meets these requirements, pet owners should first look for a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the label. The AAFCO statement will reveal if the formula in the food at least meets minimal nutrition requirements established by the association. AAFCO has not, however, established its definitions for the terms “holistic”, “natural”, and “organic”. Therefore, when these words appear on pet food labels it is simply the product manufacturer’s definition which is inevitably subject to interpretation and certainly up for argument. While AAFCO may set requirements, there is still really nothing to stop pet food manufacturers from selling food that does not meet those recommendations. Also, the association is not at all concerned with the quality of the ingredients included in pet food formulas. Their requirements are aimed at basically sustaining the animal’s needs for survival, not at providing an optimal, species appropriate meal that will allow the animal to thrive. For more information on the regulations involved in the production of pet foods, you can view AAFCO’s HYPERLINK Q&A document.

With concerns mounting among consumers about the quality of commercially available pet food, manufacturers are left with the dilemma of satisfying the consumer’s health concerns while at the same time keeping production costs low. The “solution” so far has been to switch up the ingredients in their pet foods to make it seem as if they have come up with “new and improved formulas”. This is a fairly common tactic in both the pet and human food industries, which the informed consumer can easily spot. Upon closer scrutiny, one recognizes that the so-called “improved product” has most of the same ingredients as the old product, with maybe a preservative or two switched out and some additional ingredients with unpronounceable names added to the mix. The only thing truly “new” or “improved” about it is the label, which now declares it to be “natural” and “healthy”. When pet food manufacturers label their formulas as “natural”, “holistic”, or “organic”, they may be telling the truth in the sense that the ingredients themselves may be high in quality from a human standpoint. However, they are capitalizing on the ignorance of most pet owners, who are unaware that dogs and cats have different nutritional needs than they do.

What is organic, natural, and healthy for us is not necessarily healthy for our pets because our biology is different. Pet food companies can argue all day that the ingredients in their pet food formula are somehow better than their competitors, but the truth is that you cannot buy any processed pet food and have it still be natural, organic, or holistic. To truly ascertain whether or not the food is appropriate for our pets, we are going to have to get down to the nitty gritty: the ingredients label. So what should you be looking for on an ingredients label? Long story short, all carnivores need meat. An ideal label for a species-appropriate pet food would indicate that the food had moderate levels of animal fat, was high in EPA and DHA, and was completely free of grains or potatoes and other starches. The food contents must mimic what the animal would actually eat in the wild, which means high moisture content (their prey would be about 70 percent water) and high quality protein made up of muscle meat, not bits and pieces of animal parts. A few veggies thrown in to mimic the contents of what would be in the prey’s stomach could also be added. There you have it, the perfect recipe to sustain your domesticated carnivore. Just a glance at a popular pet food label and you will immediately notice that it is not as cut and dry as I have outlined above. Indeed, your pet is depending on you to be a little more discriminating when reading pet food labels. You must learn to decipher the manufacturer’s elusive “code of deception”.

We know from buying our own organic foods that the more ingredients on a label, the less healthy the food usually is. It is the same with our pet’s food. The longer the ingredient list, the more chance that the food you are holding in your hand is at best biologically inappropriate and at the worst completely allergenic and toxic for your pet. If you feel confused looking at a food label, it is probably intentional and usually means the manufacturer has something to hide. Once you crack the label codes, you’ll become an expert at reading labels and understanding the nutritional value of the foods you purchase. Right off the bat, if you see the abbreviations BHT or BHA, or the chemicals ethoxyquin or propyl gallate on the label, that food should be avoided like the plague. These are artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives which are known to be carcinogenic. Be careful not to pick any pet food that includes soy or corn in any form. Corn is allergenic and completely non-nutritious for pets. Soy is particularly harmful to your pet’s endocrine system as well as being estrogenic. If you are considering buying a food that contains fish, check for a manufacturer’s assurance on the label to determine whether or not the formula contains no artificial preservatives. Natural, good preservatives would be vitamins E and C, often referred to as tocopherols.

Pet food labels list ingredients by weight. Meat is listed first on the label because it contains a lot of water which makes it the heaviest ingredient in the mix. When water is removed from meat, such as with a kibbled or dry food, this reduces the weight by about 80 percent. Do not be fooled if the meat is still listed first on the label. If it is dried, most of the food is coming from ingredients two, three, and four. How the meat is sourced on the label is also very important. Your pet needs good quality protein from a whole food source, not a by-product. Meaning, if the label just says “meat”, “animal”, or “poultry”, there is no telling where exactly it came from. Unspecified meat by-products contain pieces of hooves, feet, hair, feathers, beaks, and even tumors which are ground into the mix during processing. Some by-products may provide a certain element of nutrition, such as spleens and other organ meats, but because of the harmful elements which may be included it is best to avoid them altogether. You should look for specifically identified meat sources such as “beef”, “turkey”, “lamb”, or “chicken”, at the top of the ingredients list. After the meat source on the label, you may find another meat source followed by the word “meal”, such as “chicken meal” or “turkey meal”. By processed pet food standards, this indicates a high-quality protein source.

Next, you should look for vegetables. Most vegetables will do, with the exception of corn, wheat, or beet pulp which should be completely avoided. Keep in mind that your pet has no need for grains which consist of carbohydrates. The only reason pet food manufacturers add grain is because it is cheaper than meat and serves the function of holding the kibble together. The grains have nothing at all to do with nutrition. A grain-free pet food formula may use potatoes which will hold the food together during processing. While I recommend a completely grain-free formula, the next best option would be a formula that includes a whole grain source such as organic brown rice. Please remember that this is no substitute for meat content. You should avoid formulas with grain fragments. A grain fragment is simply a filler and is absolutely devoid of all nutrition. If you find whole fruits at this point in the ingredient list, that is fine as they may be put in as a replacement for grains.
As you study food labels more and more, you may notice that different components of the same ingredient are listed separately on the label. Beware of this practice, which is known as splitting, and is merely an attempt by the manufacturer to improve the look of the ingredient list. For example, if a food is only made up of 25 percent meat and 50 percent of an ingredient such as rice, the manufacturer will split the rice into 4 ingredients (brown rice, white rice, rice bran, and rice gluten meal) and list them separately. This way, the meat can be listed first as having the highest percentage after the split.
If you’ve read my other articles, you know by now that in order to feed your pet what nature really intended from a can or bag it will cost you a small fortune. Less than 10 percent of the pet foods available on the market are actually appropriate biologically for your pet, with grain-free formulas made from human-grade ingredients. You must always expect to pay about three times as much for pet food with human-grade ingredients as you would for food with non-human grade ingredients. This is simple economics. If you want good quality, you have to pay for it. Even so, the highest quality the market can offer is still going to contain additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and/or extra fats, which we can hardly file under holistic or natural, no matter how we slice it. If we want it to have a long shelf life, preservatives are a must. In the end, I am always going to point you back to raw food as the best nutrition you can ever give your pet to ensure a balanced and species-appropriate diet. Raw food contains all the enzymes and nutrients your pet was intended to eat. These healthy, live organisms are killed during cooking and food processing, never to reach your pet’s stomach. If you would like to learn more about how to feed your pet as nature intended, I have co-authored a cookbook you may find useful, entitled Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats. This book includes all you need to know to begin the process of feeding your pet healthy, raw food. It explains how to buy and prepare fresh foods in quantity, as well as recipes for both raw and cooked meals you can fix your frisky feline or cuddly canine, right in your own kitchen.


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