Every now and then I get a sample of food for the dogs to try. As I’ve said before, I rotate through multiple brands, and if I’ve written about a specific food on the blog, it’s one I’ve given to the dogs at some point.
I don’t mind trying new brands- my local pet store just started carrying some new brands this week, and I bought a couple to try out. I’m not averse to new foods, as long as giving the label a good once over doesn’t give me reason to feel otherwise. I look for several things:
1. Ingredient list, first and foremost. A named meat high on the list, a high quality carbohydrate source, recognizable ingredients, no cutesy shapes or colors requiring artificial coloring. Once you’ve compared ingredients for enough foods and know what a cheapo food has in it versus a super premium food, you can determine pretty quickly if it’s a good choice or not.
2. AAFCO statement. I prefer a diet that has undergone a feeding trial, but logistically speaking most companies rely on formulations simply because feeding trials are cost prohibitive for smaller companies. Either is acceptable. No AAFCO statement is not.
3. The BS factor. This is probably the hardest once to discern, and I’m still learning myself. Marketing is everything these days, sure, and in a competitive field like the pet food industry, companies have to do everything they can to set themselves apart. I get that. It still doesn’t mean I am cool with deceptive labelling.
Take, for example, the word ‘natural’. They’ll put that meaningless label all over their pet food as if it means something- which it doesn’t. (Unlike the term “organic”, which is strictly defined by the FDA and USDA, the word ‘natural’ has no legal definition.) Botulism and gangrene are all natural too, doesn’t make it any more desirable.
This goes for human products too. I saw a “Crystal Light Natural” on the shelves at my grocery store the other day and almost died (no, really- I’m allergic to aspartame) when I saw the ingredient list: Citric acid, maltodextrin, instant tea, corn syrup solids ++, aspartame +, contains less than 2% of natural flavor, magnesium oxide, acesulfame potassium , red 40 lake, red 40, yellow 6 lake, yellow 5, blue 1 lake, blue 1, bha (preserves freshness). Mmm, just like grandma used to make.
So anyway, when I see a label like that, I get leery. It’s not technically wrong, per se, but it makes me proceed with caution when evaluating the rest of the label because it’s not really right either, is it. Getting back to this food I was sent: the ingredient list was fine- good, actually. AAFCO statement was present and accounted for. But then I read the rest of the label, and here’s where they lost me:
On the back, in a big fluorescent box, was this statement:
REAL MEAT VS. MEAL- WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Blahdiblah Food doesn’t contain beef, chicken, turkey, lamb or fish meals of any kind. This enables us to formulate these recipes without high-glycemic ingredients such as corn, wheat, soy, potato starch, or rice.
What’s the difference, you ask? Water.
I had to read it twice to make sure I was reading what I thought I was reading. But there you have it, the BS Test: Failed.
Let’s break this down, shall we?
Everyone scurries in fear at the thought of meat meals, but in simplest terms, all it means is meat that has been cooked down to remove the water and some of the fat. It’s dried protein.
Ingredients on pet foods are listed by weight, and a big watery whole chicken is much heavier than cooked-down chicken meal, so any whole meat tends to be primary on an ingredient list. Companies like to show that off. But once the ingredients are turned into dry kibble, a product with chicken first on the ingredient list might actually have less protein than a product with chicken meal second or third on the list.
OK, so now that we know what that means- the presence or absence of water- can anyone explain to me why choosing meat versus meal would make a difference in what carbohydrate source you would use? Their statement implies if you use a meat meal, you MUST also use corn or potato starch or some other less fashionable carbohydrate. You make a turkey meal diet with a low glycemic index carbohydrate just as easily as you could one that used whole turkey. One has nothing to do with the other.
Which leads me to one of two conclusions:
1. Either this pet food manufacturer really thinks this is how diet formulations work, in which case they can’t be trusted to make a decent product; or,
2. They know it’s irrelevant and misleading but will say it because it sounds good and they assume you’re too easily swayed by smoke and mirrors to actually care to think it through, in which case they can’t be trusted to be telling the truth about anything else.
I don’t like being misled. There are lots of things in the pet food industry which toe the line, but to me, that flat out crosses it. Now, without that statement I wouldn’t have had a problem with the food at all. You did it right! Why couldn’t you just let your ingredients stand for themselves without making wildly inaccurate statements?
I know the answer, and it is that marketing people think we’re all idiots. I know this is not the case. Let’s prove them wrong. What’s the most annoying/ misleading thing you’ve seen on a pet food label?
Married with Dawgs says
I wish we could outlaw the word “natural” or “nature’s” anything on labels. It’s the single most misleading and misunderstood word out there when it comes to any type of food – people or pet.
I also despise “hypo-allergenic”. Really? What does that mean? It’s just a marketing ploy and I see it as an indication that a pet food company cares more about marketing strategies than accurately stating the content of their food – or most importantly, what they didn’t put in their food in order to reduce allergic responses. I’d purchase a food that said corn & wheat free and contained a single protein source over a food that claimed itself as hypo-allergenic any day.
I do think it’s important for people to know that meal is not just muscle meat without the water. It’s also organs, skin (in some cases), and bones. These are important ingredients for dogs to have so if a pet food only lists Chicken instead of Chicken meal, the remainder of the ingredient list should contain organ meat (like chicken liver) and a quality calcium source. I also think it’s important to note that there are huge differences in the quality of different meat meals – for instance, knowing if your pet food’s fish meal contains ethoxyquin (an artificial preservative) is important but it will never be on a label as pet food companies are not required to list the ingredients of the ingredients they purchase to make their food. They are only required to list the fish meal, not what it was preserved with.
Vet Changes World says
Thank you for your excellent treatment of meat vs. meat meal for pet food. A lot of my clients get confused about the difference between the two and which is really “better” for their pet.
I did have to point out a slight error in this article however.
This may just be a matter of semantics but there is actually set AAFCO definition for “natural”. Since most state governments use the AAFCO standards to regulate pet food, it’s fair to consider “natural”, in pet foods at least, to have a legal definition. States may not always closely enforce these laws and some may not require food to meet AAFCO standards, but for the most part if your food is AAFCO certified you should be able to trust what the word “natural” means on your pet food.
Essentially “natural” foods can have anything in them so long as major ingredients are not subjected to a chemically synthetic process. Minor trace ingredients can be chemically synthetic.
“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
We can’t really argue that it means “nothing” if the pet food is AAFCO certified, but it may mean very little. Meat from a disease ridden animal would still be “natural” and blood meal is still “natural”.
So even though “natural” does mean something, it still shouldn’t make you really excited about the pet food.
Otherwise excellent article!
Dr. V says
Thanks for the clarification! Clear as mud, right?
The whole dog food conversation drives me insane because it’s all just so confusing! There is so much information out there by different experts and they all seem to disagree. I just want to feed a good, wholesome food for a reasonable cost that my dog likes and that provides her the nutrition she needs. Why is this so hard?
Thanks for this great, easy to understand post and for at least getting rid of the BS in one particular area. “Meat meal isn’t bad.” I will add that to my list of things about dog food I know for sure. So far it’s the only thing on that list. 😛
you go girl! I hate being misled too, and have been too easily in the past. I’m starting to get better about reading lables for us and our pets 🙂
Tabitha W says
The word I hate.. “Holistic”.
Holistic food? I have NEVER understood what holistic food is!
ARGH! Stuff like that makes me insane. I always feel like companies that print labels like that are essentially saying that YOU, the consumer are either too stupid or indifferent to know any better. It makes my blood boil. My pet peeve is companies who print on. The bag that there is no ethoxyquin “added” to their foods made with fish meal, but when you press them for more details you find that their exploiting a labeling loophole. The supplier they buy the fish meal from uses the ethoxyquin, so it doesn’t have to be declared on the label. Tricky tricky pet food company…and now I don’t trust you enough to use your product.
Hypo-allergenic. *smh* And while we’re on the topic, allergy in general. People like to think everything is an allergy (immune system response) when really it’s a sensitivity/intolerance (digestive issue).
sandy weinstein says
my vet does not like any dog food. she has given recipes to formulate my own food. also as the dog ages they have different requirements or may become allergic to certain foods. also many companies do not tell you where their ingredients come from-some may come from china-which is bad. my vet does like the new frozen raw food by nature’s logic now, however, i have 3 dogs and they all get different foods. my vet is a homeopathic vet. my dogs get acupuncture, the nsad ? tests, etc. they get titered for vaccines b/c you can over vaccinate your dog.
Amber Pye says
The pet food argument will be going on forever, it seems. Even with all the information we have on nutrition and ingredient quality, not every food is good for every animal. I remember trying so hard to feed my cats a grain-free diet, and my tom always had diarrhea and an upset stomach. I had to grab a temp bag of “cruddy” food over Christmas and, lo and behold, no more problems! The food they eat now has more meat protein, but it’s still grain-inclusive. I had someone tell me I absolutely had to take him off of any dry food and anything with grain after his neuter, just because their internet anecdata said he would get sick and die.
I used to say, “Feed only the best!” now I advocate, “Feed what your pet does best on.”
Dr. V says
Isn’t that the truth!
I never realized that the whole labeling of pet foods is as regulated as it is for foods packaged for human consumption. I would wonder if the terminology meant the same (if there was a standard and how tightly held the pet food companies are held to in complying).
My senior cat (16 years old) was health issue free until about 4 years ago and about two years ago developed a digestive issue (vomiting, blood in stool, diarrhea, you name it). We rotated through so many foods to try to fix this and I’ve read soooo many labels and gotten so confused. Each switch to a new food would alleviate the symptoms for anywhere from 2 days to 4 weeks and then they would start up again. Maybe some of it is stress or just age (one of her xrays show arthritis starting along her spine), but she was always one to eat anything except the bland diet food. The latest thing I’ve introduced her to is the grain-free formulation dry food and we’ll see how she does on it.
Our younger cat, on the other hand, is a very picky eater. She will not eat anything new (after trying it for one day) and only eats one brand/formulation (expensive) without hesitation. The only exception is that she might eat more of another food if it is in the older cat’s bowl and not touch it when it is in her bowl. Go figure.
Anyhow, my biggest gripe with advertising is when they say on the package that “we have the pickiest cat eater ever and he/she loves this!” We tried their food with our younger cat and she wouldn’t even touch it (even when we enticed her with putting it in the other cat’s bowl). All I have to say to them is ‘Yeah, right… I think we have you trumped’.
Megan Baebler, DVM says
One of my biggest pet peeves is the Beneful package. It shows all these beautiful looking cuts of meat and fresh vegetables. Then, you open the package up and find sub-standard kibble treated with unnecessary food dyes. Bleh.
Morgan Oexner says
My biggest pet peeve is the hype about by-products being terrible things. And the idea that by-products are somehow not natural? That if a dog or a cat were given the choice, they would eat *only* the muscle meet from their prey? That muscle meat isn’t severely lacking in other nutrients they could get from other, savory parts (kidneys, liver, heart) included in “by products”? I wish a good, reliable pet food company would once and for all define by-products on a TV commercial so that those other companies claiming that by-products are bad would put a sock in it. I am a third year veterinary student at Tufts and am so glad that our board certified nutritionist could clear up a lot of this type of silly advertising for us. I wish the general public could be informed about pet foods, too! Thanks for this article!