Navigating the Pet Food Aisle

By: Kristi Sharpe, DVM

We’ve all been there, standing at the end of the pet food aisle staring down the long shelves filled to the brim with different food options wondering how we’re supposed to pick one. It’s a very overwhelming situation to not know where to start. Most people either buy the first brightly colored bag that seems appealing or they base their decision on Sheryl the over-sharing neighbor’s recommendations. Let me be the first to tell you that pet food manufacturers have learned how to pull your eye to their bag and Sheryl doesn’t know the first thing about pet nutrition. So let me give you some pointers on things to look for and things to avoid in your pet’s food.

Let’s talk about the first thing we all notice about pet foods, the brand. There are so many brands to choose from these days. Some of them are more popular and recognizable than others. I will say up front that if you’ve never heard of the brand you shouldn’t even consider it. Boutique and exotic diets are a dime-a-dozen. They look and sound very appealing, but the problem with most of them is that they are small companies that lack adequate data to support the nutritional adequacy and safety of their product. Also many small food brands (and some not-so-small brands) do something called co-packing. Co-packing is when a brand outsources the actual manufacturing and packaging of their pet food. This saves the company lots of money because they don’t have to have an actual facility and they don’t have to pay someone to source ingredients. So the bag of food may say Aunt Inna’s Honest Kitchen, but the food is actually cooked and packaged by Uncle Joe’s Co-packing. Many times the brand even outsources the formulating side of things. So it’s not even Aunt Inna’s recipe. Why is this an issue? Because the third party is responsible for all the quality control, ingredient sourcing, and food handling of the product you’re purchasing and you don’t even know who it is. Did you ever stop to wonder why some of those pet food recalls include a lot of seemingly unrelated brands? You guessed it. They all share a third party co-packing facility. As a dog owner I would like to know the company I’m purchasing from is responsible for their food from beginning to end.

Many of the larger, more reputable brands will not only own their own manufacturing facilities, but they will also employ Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists to formulate their recipes. Veterinary nutritionists are kept up to date on the latest science-based nutrition standards and adjust their recipes accordingly. This gives you peace of mind that the person formulating the recipe for your dog or cat is knowledgeable about your pets health AND nutritional requirements.

Next pet owners should also learn to read labeling. One of the main things you should be looking for is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement NOT the ingredient list. Why should you care more about some statement rather than the ingredients? Dog food manufacturers have in recent years used the ingredient list as a marketing tool which, I feel, should make owners view the list with some measure of skepticism (more on that in a minute). The AAFCO statement will be printed somewhere in the fine print of the pet food package. AAFCO is an organization that researches and publishes a range of nutritional requirements for all types of animals and is considered to be the gold standard for nutrition guidelines in the United States. The statements tell you if the food is adequate for certain life stages (i.e. growth, all life stages). The majority of commercial dog foods use the AAFCO standards to formulate their recipes and will have an AAFCO statement. If the bag/can doesn’t have an AAFCO label put it back on the shelf because you cannot guarantee the food meets your pet’s nutritional needs. You should be looking for two main AAFCO statements; the AAFCO adequacy statement or AAFCO feeding trial statement. For example:

A. Kibble Shack Chicken and Rice is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog/Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for adult dogs.
B. Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate Kibble Shack Chicken and Rice provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult dogs.

The first statement is very general and probably the most common one you’ll see. It simply means that the food meets AAFCO nutritional standards for an adult dog. What it doesn’t tell you is if it met those standards before or after it was cooked. That’s an important distinction. If it met the standards before it was cooked then what happened after? Did the cooking process change the profile? The second statement tells you that particular food has been through a feeding trial and has been proven to meet AAFCO standards for an adult dog. If a pet food carries the food trial label that means the company went the extra mile to feed their formulation to real animals and made sure it met specific requirements before they put it on the market. Feeding trials act as an additional quality control measure and gives peace of mind to an owner that the food they buy is safe. Another variation of the AAFCO statement you should be aware of is one that states the diet is for supplemental or intermittent feeding only. This means that the food is deficient in certain nutrients or minerals and should not be fed as the sole diet long term. If a bag of commercial dog food says this don’t buy it because it’s not safe. The exception to this is veterinary prescription diets. These diets must be restricted in certain nutrients in order to help manage certain medical conditions like kidney disease. Any diet that is not a prescription diet should not have a supplemental feeding AAFCO statement.

Now we’ll move on to the ingredient list. Oh, ingredient list, I wish I could trust you, but unfortunately you are a pawn in a marketing game. This is where I become a stick in the mud. Pet owners have become increasingly more discerning when it comes to what ingredients go into their pet’s food. You want your dog to eat as cleanly as you do and that’s great. However, pet food companies have capitalized on this. They tell you things like “real chicken is the first ingredient not chicken meal” which sounds great so you flip over the bag and sure enough there it is “chicken” right out front. Here’s what they don’t tell you. Ingredients are listed by weight so the heaviest ingredient is listed first on the list. A chicken breast is 70% water which adds a lot of weight. Chicken meal is chicken meat, skin and bone that has been cooked, dried and ground up. While it sounds less appealing when written out in words chicken meal is actually nutritionally dense meaning it has a high protein, fat, and mineral content. So even though chicken is the first listed ingredient, it has less nutritional value than the same weight of chicken meal. Also, they’ll say things like “with blueberries and apples” and when you read the ingredient list, sure enough, they have it listed, but its listed last.

Technically it does have blueberries and apples, but if it’s listed last the nutritional benefits are essentially zilch. Tufts University’s Clinical Nutrition Service actually has a nice article outlining the pitfalls of the pet food ingredient list. It’s a quick read and would be really beneficial if you want to learn more. I’ll post a link at the end.

Last but not least let’s talk about Grain-free. It’s a gimmick. There, I said it. There has been no documented research to suggest grain-free diets are more beneficial than grain inclusive ones. The grain-free boom goes right along with our desire to feed animals like we feed ourselves. The Paleo, Adkins, and Keto diets are all popular in human nutrition right now and I think a lot of the anti-grain movement has trickled down to our pets. The science just doesn’t support the claims that grains are harmful. In fact, some more recent research done by the FDA suggests a potential link between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Boutique, Exotic, and Grain-free (BEG) diets.

Another aspect of the grain-free hype is the purported allergy aspect. Many people report feeding grain-free to help with allergies, but food allergies are not common in our pet population. Most of the allergies we encounter are environmental. Yes some animals can have allergies to food, but usually the allergy is to a protein source like chicken and beef not the grains. Typically if I’ve ever recommended a grain free food it’s because I was looking to avoid chicken or beef. Many of the novel protein options (salmon, duck and venison) are easier to find over the counter in grain-free varieties than in grain inclusive ones. In general, grain inclusive diets are just fine for your dog and cat.

Long story short, the pet food industry is a tough one to navigate and their marketing ploys are very, very clever. At the end of the day I do have a few brands that I feel meet all the requirements of a quality dog food and are gimmick-lite; Science Diet, Royal Canin, Purina, Iams, and Eukanuba. These companies have done considerable research to add to nutritional advancements for our furry friends. They all manufacture and pack their own foods. They have Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists formulating their recipes and their formulations have stood the test of time. If you have concerns about what you’re feeding your pet but you’re hesitant to switch talk to your veterinarian. They can help you choose a food that fits your pets’ specific needs. If you would like to research certain brands on your own The World Small Animal Veterinary Association also provides a handout for owners to help them ask the right questions to find a nutritious pet food.

Tufts University Clinical Nutrition:

WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee

FDA BEG diet report summary

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