The Truth About Natural and Clean Ingredients in Pet Food

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet food labels

Story at-a-glance -

  • The major players in the pet food industry are marketing masters, and it’s important that pet parents learn to spot the spin
  • They describe their formulas as “natural,” when in reality, there’s nothing natural about highly processed pet (or human) food
  • They describe rendered, extruded formulas with dozens of added animal feed-grade ingredients as “clean” pet food
  • The describe the highly problematic, biologically inappropriate ingredient rice bran as a “superfood” for pets

As most of you who visit here regularly realize, the processed pet food industry does one thing really well: marketing. The images and words used in their packaging and labeling, as well as in print, online and TV ads to depict and describe their products are often so far removed from reality as to border on fantasy. Time for some debunking!

The Myth of ‘Natural’ Processed Pet Food

So-called "natural" pet food is an established trend and a big winner for pet food companies in terms of market share. Unfortunately for both pet parents and their furry charges, 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."1 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.”2

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.

The Myth of ‘Clean’ Processed Pet Food

Recently, NUTRO, a processed pet food manufacturer owned by Mars Petcare North America, announced it was launching “ … a new corporate philosophy that focuses on the concept of clean food: NUTRO. FEED CLEAN.”

“The NUTRO brand is taking the clean eating trend in human food and translating that to pet food, creating recipes that satisfy the nutritional needs of dogs,” says the general manager of pet specialty, Mars Petcare North America. “That’s the sweet spot we’re going for, and I believe NUTRO dry dog food gets it exactly right.”3

NUTRO/Mars Petcare is claiming they’re applying clean eating philosophies to processed pet food, which is, to my knowledge, virtually impossible to accomplish (more about that shortly). However, since there’s no formal definition of “clean food,” anybody can make any claim they like, it seems. I visited NUTRO’s website and found this announcement on the home page:

“CLEAN is the new standard

A pet's food energizes them from the inside out, and NUTRO™ clean recipes are simple, purposeful, and trustworthy — made of real, recognizable, non-GMO ingredients. Each of our Dry Dog Food recipes is clean, and the same is true for our NUTRO™ Dry Cat recipes. But we have more work to do on all of our wet, treats and MAX™ Cat products, and we won’t rest until choosing any of our products means choosing clean for your pet. NUTRO. FEED CLEAN™.

Trace amounts of genetically modified material may be present due to potential cross contact during manufacturing.”4

This is the height of marketing spin. “Simple, purposeful, and trustworthy” recipes — what do those buzzwords really mean with regard to your dog’s nutrition? And the recipes are made of “real, recognizable, non-GMO ingredients” (except there might be trace amounts of GMO ingredients due to the manufacturing process).

Let’s take a look at the ingredient list for one of NUTRO’s “clean” products, WHOLESOME ESSENTIALS™ Adult Dry Dog Food with Farm-Raised Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe:5

“Chicken, Chicken Meal, Whole Brown Rice, Brewers Rice, Split Peas, Rice Bran, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Barley, Lamb Meal, Dried Sweet Potato, Natural Flavor, Dried Plain Beet Pulp, Flaxseed, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, Salt, Dried Apples, Dried Blueberries, Dried Carrots, Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid (preservatives), Zinc Sulfate, Niacin Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin E Supplement, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement (Vitamin B2), Selenium Yeast, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract”

It’s no surprise that this list of “clean” ingredients looks quite similar to the ingredient lists of many processed dry dog foods made with rendered ingredients. I wouldn’t use the words simple, real or recognizable to describe a dog food formula that contains almost 40 ingredients (most of them nutrient add-ins after high-heat processing destroys the nutrients in the actual food) — synthetic vitamins and minerals that can remain shelf-stable for months to years after processing.

The take-home message here for pet parents is that processed pet food producers are using trendy terms like “clean eating” and “clean labels” as marketing ploys. Rendered and extruded pet food made with “feed-grade” ingredients cannot, by definition, be clean.

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The Myth of ‘Superfood’ Ingredients in Processed Pet Food

When it comes to Big Pet Food “innovations,” generally speaking, the industry’s focus is on finding and exploiting inexpensive “novel” ingredients that are almost never species-appropriate for dogs and cats. For example, here’s a typical pet food industry journal headline:

“Rice bran becomes functional, sustainable dog superfood. A wasted resource could become a money-saving, eco-friendly dog food ingredient.”6

Note the catchwords I bolded. These are the same marketing buzzwords pet food companies use to attract you, a potential customer, to their products. In this case, a company called RiceBran Technologies (a supplier of rice bran) is using marketing spin to attract its customers, pet food producers.

Unfortunately, use of the words sustainable and eco-friendly to describe pet food usually means someone has discovered yet another way to incorporate waste from the human food industry into processed dog or cat food. The reality is that rice bran is about as far removed from a superfood for dogs and cats as it gets.

Rice bran is the fibrous outer portion of rice grain, and is a byproduct of the milling process that converts brown rice to white rice. It has a number of significant drawbacks as a pet food ingredient:

It’s a biologically unnecessary food. Grains are cheap, high-glycemic sources of energy not required, metabolically, by dogs or cats. Grain-based pet foods are pro-inflammatory and generally detrimental to their health if fed over a lifetime, contributing to diabetes, obesity and cancer.

Untreated rice bran has a high rancidity rate, because it contains a high amount of fat, which means it can go bad quickly during storage. Due to its high rancidity rate, this byproduct used to be thrown in the garbage by the rice processing industry, but then someone discovered it could be stabilized. There has been at least one recent recall of dog food due to a strong off odor that was traced to rancid rice bran.7

Rice and rice products have been shown to contain high levels of arsenic, a toxic chemical that occurs naturally in the environment, including in soil and ground water. It also contaminates certain plants at high levels as a result of human agricultural activity. Consumer Reports conducted testing on rice and discovered higher levels of arsenic in brown rice than white rice, because the toxin accumulates in the outer layer of the rice grain. According to the report:

“Arsenic concentrations found in the bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain.”8

Rice bran may be contaminated with aflatoxins, naturally occurring mycotoxins produced by fungi that grow on certain crops. Aflatoxins are highly carcinogenic. They poison the liver and promote tumor development.

Arm Yourself With Information so You Can’t Be Fooled by Clever Marketing

More and more consumers are making it clear they’re looking for nutritious, higher-quality diets for their dogs and cats. In response, many of the largest pet food companies in the industry will attempt to meet the demand not by significantly improving the quality and species-appropriateness of their products, but by making relatively small changes to their formulas that can be spun by marketers to appeal to the desire of pet owners to feed a more wholesome diet.

That’s why it’s important for you, as a pet parent concerned about feeding your dog or cat a nutritious diet, to know the difference between real natural, clean, species-appropriate pet food and pet food that only claims to be.