Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Pet Food: Good Nutrition versus Good Marketing

The US pet industry is a $60 billion business with pet food contributing 38% or $23 of the $60 billion. No wonder we have seen an explosion of pet food companies in recent years. What is the science behind pet nutrition? What are the myths and marketing techniques used to sell pet food? Where can we look for help? How do you read a pet food label?  

This will be a two-part article. I will address where you can find reliable information regarding pet nutrition and debunk some of the common myths in this first article. The next article will be dedicated to reading and deciphering pet food labels.

Precisely balanced nutrition is vital to overall health and development of pets. Furthermore it impacts a pet’s life expectancy and quality of life.  For puppy and kittens proper nutrition plays a significant role in providing the right balance of nutrients to address high energy requirement and proper growth. For puppies and kittens vitamin E and DHA are important nutrients for building strong immunity and neurological function. For large breed puppies nutrition with less calcium and fat reduces the chances for developing bone and joint abnormalities. For adult pets, the ideal balance of vitamins and minerals help them stay healthier longer. For mature pets, reduced levels of phosphorus and sodium are important to maintain kidney and heart health. Optimal nutrition is critically important in the management of symptoms and treatment of specific diseases.

Obviously there is a lot of science and biology involved in feeding your beloved Kitty or Fido properly. And it seems like everyone wants to offer advice. Information from pet store employees and on the Internet can be confusing and there are lots of myths and misinformation on the topic of pet nutrition.

Where can you go to find unbiased, evidence based information?  Your veterinarian is the best source of information regarding the appropriate diet for your specific pet. Many factors are involved in choosing the proper food, including economics, availability, health issues, your pet’s preference, and your personal philosophies.

Another resource is a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist (ACVN). These specialists are uniquely trained in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with one or more diseases. Veterinary nutritionists are qualified to formulate commercial foods and supplements, formulate home-prepared diets, manage the complex medical and nutritional needs of individual animals, and understand the underlying causes and implications of specific nutritional strategies that are used to prevent and treat diseases. If you would like more information about Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist go to

Other non-biased resources include:

* The Pet Food Institute:

* The World Small Animal Veterinary Association:
From this web page scroll down to “Tools for Pet Owners”. The savvy owners guide to nutrition on the internet provides tips on effectively and objectively using the Internet. In addition, it includes a list of useful and accurate Internet resources on pet nutrition.

* Most importantly you should be familiar with AAFCO
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. Although AAFCO has no regulatory authority, the Association provides a forum for the membership and industry representation to achieve three main goals:

  • Safeguarding the health of animals and humans
  • Ensuring consumer protection
  • Providing a level playing field of orderly commerce for the animal feed industry.

The nutritional adequacy of pet foods is generally determined by one of two methods based on nutritional levels and procedures defined by AAFCO: Look for this information on the label.

Formulation method
This method is less expensive, and results are determined more quickly because actual feeding or digestibility trials are not required. There is no guarantee of pet acceptance or nutrient bioavailability when utilizing this method.
Label example: Brand X Cat Formula is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American feed Control Officials Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for Maintenance.

Feeding trial method
This method is the “gold standard” for determining nutritional adequacy. The manufacturer must perform an AAFCO protocol feeding trial using the food being tested as the sole source of nutrition. Feeding trials are the best way to document how a pet will perform when fed a specific food.
Label example: Animal feeding test using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand Y Adult dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs.
The "AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy or purpose, also called a "nutrition claim" or "complete and balanced statement,” identifies which life stage and/or lifestyle the product has been approved for. Under AAFCO regulations, this statement must be substantiated by the manufacturer.

It is important to remember that AAFCO regulations only deal with the maximum and/or minimum levels of the nutrients that AAFCO deems essential to a pet’s health. For example, AAFCO requires that an adult cat food must contain at least 18 percent protein if the manufacturer is going to call it complete and balanced.

If you find an AAFCO statement on a cat food label (e.g., "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A adult cat food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult cat."), you can be confident that it contains at least 18 percent protein. But this does not mean that 18 percent protein is necessarily an ideal amount for your cat. The AAFCO statement is just ensuring that the minimum standard is met in foods that have been given its stamp of approval. You should consult your veterinarian to determine which cat food is best for your pet. 

Now for some myth busting!

Myth #1 Premium or Gourmet foods are superior. 
TRUTH: According to FDA labeling guidelines products labeled “premium” or “gourmet” aren’t required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients than regular pet food, nor are they held to any higher nutritional standard. This is good marketing but doesn’t necessarily mean a better product. Look for the gold standard of an Animal feeding test using AAFCO procedures to substantiate that the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for the specific life stage of your pet.

Myth #2 Human-Grade Pet Food is superior
TRUTH: The term “human-grade” is deceptive when applied to pet food, warns AAFCO. A human-grade food must be under constant FDA supervision, which only exists in the human food supply chain. “The term “human-grade” has no legal definition,” says Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD and Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Many ingredients used in pet food manufacturing are actually suitable for human consumption, so the term “human-grade” sounds good and is good marketing, but actually means very little.”

Myth#3: Natural means organic.
TRUTH: Natural and organic are not interchangeable.
Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels. However, do not confuse these terms with “organic.” Only food labeled “organic products” has been certified as organic in accordance with USDA and AAFCO regulations.
Under new regulations, four categories were created for the term “organic”:

  • 100 Percent Organic: May carry the new USDA Organic Seal.
  • Organic: At least 95% of content is organic by weight (excluding water and salt) and may carry the new USDA Organic Seal.
  • Made with Organic: At least 70% of content is organic and the front product panel may display the phrase “Made with Organic” followed by up to three specific ingredients. (But it may not display the new USDA Organic Seal.)
  • Less than 70% of content is organic: May list only those ingredients that are organic on the ingredient panel with no mention of organic on the main panel. (May not display the new USDA Organic Seal.)

Myth#4: Pet foods containing ingredients listed as “by-products” are inferior.
TRUTH: By-products are common ingredients in both human and pet food. The AAFCO Official Publication 2008 defines a By-Product as: Secondary products produced in addition to the principle product.

  • When processing soybeans, for example, the by-product vitamin E is produced. Mixed tocopherols (such as vitamin E), used as natural preservatives in pet foods, are by-products of the soybean industry.
  • Vegetable oils (such as flaxseed oil, rice oil, bran oil, corn oil and soy oil) are by-products extracted from the seeds that are processed for consumption purposes.
  • Chicken fat is a by-product of the chicken industry.

Myth#5: Corn is bad...Used as a filler, is difficult to digest, and is implicated in food allergies
TRUTH: Corn has been called a filler ingredient, but that is inaccurate. Fillers are ingredients that provide no nutrients. Corn supplies many essential nutrients including protein, carbohydrate, fatty acids, and antioxidants.

Corn can be safely and easily digested. Most grains are poorly digested before they are cooked, but like other grains, corn becomes highly digestible after grinding and cooking so nutrients are easily absorbed. In fact, the protein in corn is more digestible than that of rice, wheat, barley, or sorghum.

It’s a misconception that corn is a major allergen for cats and dogs. Corn is NOT a common cause of adverse or allergic food reactions in pets. Corn is implicated in fewer allergy cases than other common protein sources such as beef, dairy products, wheat, chicken, egg, lamb, or soy.

In the high-stakes world of pet food marketing these terms and myths can be confusing and in some cases misleading.  Now that you know the facts behind these myths and have resources to find unbiased, evidence based information you will be a savvier shopper and better equipped to understand why your veterinarian is recommending a particular diet.

”Bone” App├Ętit!


  1. Keep your cat satisfied with Healthy cat treats. These delicious mixes take mealtimes to the next level with meat, poultry, or seafood.