What makes a dog food ‘holistic’?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

holistic dog food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Though many dog foods are marketed as “holistic,” there’s actually no such thing
  • Pet food companies use the term “holistic” in their marketing and advertising because they know it’s meaningful to consumers, but meaningless in terms of their products
  • It’s also important for pet parents to understand that claims that processed dog food is “natural” or “clean” are also essentially meaningless

Someone asked me a question recently about the term holistic dog food. What, exactly, is it? What makes a dog food "holistic?" This is actually a good question, and the answer is, there's no such thing. If you see a dog food labeled "holistic," you're seeing the pet food company's marketing spin — nothing more. Allow me to explain. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of holistic:1

"1. [Of] or relating to holism

2: [R]elating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system

And a slight variation from the Cambridge Dictionary:2

  • "[R]elating to the whole of something or to the total system instead of just to its parts
  • [H]olistic medicine attempts to treat the whole person, including mind and body, not just the injury or disease

When we look at the actual definition of "holistic," its use as a descriptive term for pet food (feed, or any food, for that matter) makes even less sense. I suspect there's a connection in people's minds between the words holistic and natural, and the pet food industry has taken full advantage of the situation.

"Knowing that pet parents want what is best for their dog, 'holistic' gives them the impression that the food will be nutritious and balanced and will benefit the pet's total health and wellness," says veterinarian Travis Arndt, director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America, in an interview with PetMD.3

Dr. Angie Krause, owner of Boulder Holistic Vet says, "Holistic pet food is more of a movement towards a less-processed diet with higher-quality ingredients." A type of pet food that only gives an impression and is "more of a movement" isn't a type of pet food at all. It's also worth noting that the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) doesn't even recognize the word holistic, much less define it.

Just to be perfectly clear, and as most of you who visit here regularly are aware, I'm a passionate advocate of holistic medicine and healing, as well as clean eating, which is about eating organic, whole, real (non-GMO) foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined and handled, thereby leaving them as close to their natural form as possible.

That said, since there's no official definition of "holistic food" in either the human or pet food realm, and since the term is being tossed around by pet food companies purely as a marketing ploy, I don't want to jump on that bandwagon.

What about 'natural' dog food?

So-called natural dog 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 yet another 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."4 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."5

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 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.

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Another red flag: Processed pet food marketed as 'clean'

I mentioned earlier than I'm an advocate of clean eating, which among other things means eating food that is as close to its original natural form as possible. Processed food (for humans and animals), is by its very nature food as far from its original form as it gets. Recently, processed pet food manufacturer NUTRO 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."6

NUTRO is claiming it's applying clean eating philosophies to processed pet food, which is, as I mentioned, virtually impossible to accomplish. However, since there's no formal definition of "clean food," as is the case with "holistic food," anybody can make any claim they like. 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."7

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 Farm-Raised (as opposed to city-raised?) Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe:8

"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.

If I represent the average 2.0 pet parent in the consumer market, "clean" would start with Mars using human-grade ingredients in any of their rendered pet feeds. "Clean" would also mean voluntary testing for known contaminants that make pet foods "unclean": Posting independent test results for glyphosate, heavy metals and other contaminants on their website or Check Your Pet Food, LLC. Those steps would be a great start for pet food claiming to be "clean."

In addition to not being transparent about what it genuinely means to produce "clean" food, when you calculate the carbs in the above formula you'll discover it contains more than 40% unnecessary starch. So, my conclusions about this food are that it's not clean and not biologically appropriate. I'm not picking on this brand; 99% of pet foods on the market today fall into the same category, the key is to have enough knowledge to see past the marketing gimmicks.

The take-home message here for pet parents is that processed pet food producers are using trendy terms like "holistic," "natural" and "clean eating" as marketing ploys. Rendered and extruded pet food made with "feed-grade" ingredients cannot logically be any of those things.

Knowledge is power

More and more consumers are making it clear they're looking for nutritious, higher-quality diets for their pets. 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.