This Pet Food Class Skews Crème de la Crème, but Be Aware of Cheap Copycats

kibble

Story at-a-glance -

  • Processed food can’t be “natural,” so it’s best to ignore trendy marketing messages emphasizing that pet food in a bag, can or pouch is “natural”
  • Grain-free diets have seen explosive growth in recent years, but most are very high in carbohydrates and are contributing to pet obesity and diabetes, among other problems
  • The kibble+ pet food trend is a gimmick designed to fool you into believing you’re providing your pet with the benefits of raw, species-appropriate nutrition
  • Meal enhancers, another growing trend, can be — like all commercial pet food — of either high- or low-quality, and are still 100 percent processed; consider safe, nutritious human foods as occasional add-ins instead
  • Freeze-dried and dehydrated pet foods are also increasing in popularity; if you choose to feed this type of diet, be sure to buy from a high-quality pet food producer

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

According to the publication I read to stay on top of happenings in the processed pet food industry, 2017 saw growth in two "established" and three "emerging" pet food trends.1 The two established markets the publication cited are natural and grain-free pet foods. The three up-and-coming trends are kibble+, meal enhancers, and freeze-dried and dehydrated diets.

Let's take a look at each of these for a better understanding of what types of diets they are, and whether they're a good idea for your own pet.

'Natural' Pet Food

Of the six established and emerging trends, "natural" pet food was the clear winner in terms of market share. However, there's a considerable problem with this category. The term natural has become a meaningless marketing buzzword in both the human and pet food industries.

It appears all over processed food packages and labels, ignoring the fact that processed food cannot be natural food. Definition of natural: "…existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind."2 Obviously, with rare exceptions, food that comes in a can, bag or box has been made or caused by humankind. Here's an indirect warning to pet parents in the form of advice from the pet food industry to pet food manufacturers:

"To succeed in marketing natural dog and cat foods, brands need to differentiate themselves on shelves crowded with competitors making the same claims."3

I encourage you to be very skeptical of virtually all pet food packaging, labels, marketing and advertising. Pet food companies spend incredible amounts of money using words, pictures, artwork, music, video and other tricks of the trade to "differentiate themselves" from their competitors.

If your goal is to feed your dog or cat a truly natural diet, according to the definition above, you'll need to either make the food yourself using nutritionally balanced recipes and fresh, human-grade ingredients, or go with an excellent-quality commercial raw food that mimics a pet's ancestral (or truly "natural") diet.

Grain-Free Pet Food

Grain-free formulas are now 43 percent of the pet food market, and year over year growth has been around 10 percent. The reason grain-free dog and cat food became so popular was because grain-based diets have created a variety of health problems for countless numbers of pets.

Obligate carnivores (cats) and facultative carnivores (dogs) have no dietary requirement for grains, and their digestive systems aren't equipped to process grains, so it makes sense that feeding them a grain-based diet day in and day out for months or years might damage their health.

Unfortunately, grain-free processed pet food isn't free of carbs or starches, and in recent years we've begun to see the damage caused by carb-heavy diets in the exploding epidemics of pet obesity and diabetes.

There's also now growing concern that some of the ingredients in grain-free kibble are causing taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a type of heart disease, in dogs. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read my recent article on this emerging problem, "Dogs Fed Grain-Free Kibble May Be at Risk for Heart Disease."

The best grain-free food you can offer your pet is a fresh, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet. Fresh, living foods have an abundance of enzymes, fragile fatty acids and phytonutrients that are lost with any type of processing. These micronutrients are invaluable to health, over time, which is why I always recommend that unprocessed meals be fed to pets as often as economically possible.

Kibble+

Kibble+ is the name the pet food industry has given to kibble mixed with some form of preserved (often freeze-dried) raw meat. Kibble+ is seeing the fastest year-over-year growth at almost 70 percent, though it's still a very small share of the overall pet food market. What you need to know about kibble+:

  • It's primarily kibble, with all the problems dry diets present for dogs, and especially cats
  • It may not contain grains, but in order for it to be kibble, it must contain a significant amount of carbohydrates
  • It contains very little "raw" food and the raw meat it does contain has been preserved in some manner to make the formula shelf-stable

I suspect kibble+ is a gimmick used by pet food manufacturers to try to fool pet parents into believing they can provide the benefits of raw, species-appropriate nutrition from a convenient bag of kibble. If you're feeding dry pet food, I hope you'll read my article "Still Buying Kibble? Please Heed This Safety Warning" to understand more about this problematic junk food for pets.

Meal Enhancers

Meal enhancers aren't new, but they're seeing a significant uptick in popularity, growing almost 25 percent in 2017 alone. As is the case with all commercially available pet foods and treats, there are some very good meal enhancers out there, and some very poor-quality ones. And, of course, the better the quality of the meal enhancer, the more expensive it will be. My suggestion, if you want to offer your pet a meal enhancer once in awhile, is to go with a few safe, nutritious human foods such as:

  • Fresh pumpkin (either steamed or boiled) or 100 percent canned pumpkin
  • Kefir
  • Beneficial varieties of mushrooms (e.g., shiitake, reishi, maitake, lion's mane, king trumpet, turkey tail and himematsutake) or my mushroom broth recipe
  • Sardines (canned, in water)
  • Fermented veggies

And remember that meal enhancers, toppers' and mix-ins, like all additions to your pet's diet, should comprise no more than 15 percent of overall caloric intake.

Freeze-Dried and Dehydrated Pet Food

Freeze-dried pet foods are a tiny percentage of the pet food market, but the category is growing at about 32 percent year over year. Dehydrated formulas grew over 53 percent in 2017, but are an even smaller percentage of the total market than freeze-dried.

The processed pet food industry is using freeze-dried and dehydration technology to mix "multiple proteins and/or carbohydrates," as well as "functional ingredients."4 My guess is they're finding ways to freeze-dry or dehydrate all their favorite inexpensive, biologically inappropriate, starchy ingredients and ride the coattails of quality pet food manufacturers who've been producing excellent freeze-dried diets for years.

This is really a shame, because the freeze-dried and dehydrated segments of the pet food market have historically been reliably high-quality, featuring brands that use human-grade ingredients like Dr. Bessant's Simple Food Project and Honest Kitchen. But as the market expands and the processed pet food producers get in on the act, I'm very leery of what may end up in the freeze-dried and dehydrated aisle.

While I have nothing against excellent-quality freeze-dried or dehydrated diets, it's important to realize they aren't the same as fresh raw diets, despite marketing gimmicks. My issue is that many of these brands are trying to cash in on the popularity of raw food diets, deceptively labeling them as raw food when they aren't.

Freeze-dried or dehydrated food is not raw food; one is fresh (i.e., it will rot if left at room temperature) and one is shelf-stable (meaning not fresh). Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods haven't been processed at high temperatures like processed dry food diets, which is good, and in many cases, the nutrient value has been retained minus a balanced fatty acid profile.

They're shelf-stable so they're very convenient, and to make them biologically appropriate, all you have to do is add water. They're a smart choice for pet owners who are always on the go, or who take hiking or camping trips with their pet, or for dogs and cats who go to day care or need to be boarded.

If you're a pet parent and like the idea of freeze-dried or dehydrated meals for your dog or cat, be sure to do your homework and stick with high-quality pet food companies. And make sure the brand you select is nutritionally balanced for all life stages. Don't buy food for your pet based on marketing hype — stay focused on ingredient labels and sourcing, and manufacturing methods.