Can You Decipher This Pet Food Insider Double-Talk?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet food

Story at-a-glance

  • Pet owners continue to demonstrate a growing interest in natural diets for their dogs and cats, and a move away from “scientifically formulated” diets
  • AAFCO’s definition of “natural” pet food includes food that has been processed and may contain chemically synthetic compounds
  • “Natural” means not made or caused by humankind; any food that comes in a can, bag or box has been made or caused by humankind, and therefore can’t be natural
  • Ingredient sourcing and manufacturing processes can tell you a great deal about how natural and high quality a pet food company’s product are
  • To feed your pet a truly natural diet, either make the food yourself using nutritionally balanced recipes and fresh, human-grade ingredients, or choose an excellent quality commercial raw food that mimics a pet’s ancestral diet

Pet parents are keenly interested in natural diets for their dogs and cats. In 2016, the research company Nielsen conducted a survey of over 3,500 U.S. and French consumers, ages 18-65, who owned at least one dog or cat, and found that their #2 preference in pet food was that it be “natural” (#1 was “non-GMO”).1

The survey results showed consumer preference trending away from “scientifically formulated” pet food brands. A majority of survey respondents (65%) believed ingredients such as natural digestive enzymes provide unique health advantages. According to Nielsen, “scientific” has become a polarizing term. My guess is that to many pet owners, the word has become synonymous with “fake” or “made in a laboratory” vs. made in nature. Some actual quotes from pet owners:2

  • “When I see the word ‘scientific,’ it makes me think the food has added preservatives and hormones.”
  • “What does ‘scientifically formulated’ mean? It sounds unnatural.”

Unfortunately, many pet parents don’t realize that the word “natural” on pet food labels very likely doesn’t mean what they think it means, either.

AAFCO’s Definition of Natural

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the regulatory authority for pet food in the U.S. (The reality is, there’s actually very little “regulating” going on — you can read all about the here if you’re interested.) Here’s AAFCO’s current definition of “natural” when it comes to pet food:

“A feed or feed 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 in good manufacturing practices.”3

AAFCO also offers a breakdown of the definition:

  • There is no requirement or statement that natural feeds or ingredients are safer than those produced by a chemically synthetic process.
  • Natural is a liberal term that includes more ingredients than it excludes — most pet food ingredients are derived from “plant, animal or mined sources.”
  • A feed ingredient can be subject to a number of commonly used processes during the manufacturing process and still be deemed natural.
  • A feed or feed ingredient can contain trace amounts of chemically synthetic compounds and still be considered natural.

So, as you can see, when it comes to the pet food on store shelves, "natural" doesn't mean non-processed, nor does it even mean non-synthetic. Chances are, if you’re buying processed dog or cat food that claims to be “natural,” you’re getting a product that is very similar to regular old pet food, but at a (sometimes considerably) higher cost.

There’s No Such Thing as ‘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. Dictionary 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, videos and other tricks of the trade to “differentiate themselves” from their competitors.

Ingredient Sourcing is Key

A critically important feature of commercial pet food that determines the quality of the finished product are the raw ingredients. The Association for Truth in Pet Food website maintains a list of pet food companies that have taken the Pledge of Quality and Origin; companies that voluntarily disclose all sources of meats, organ meats, by-products, by-product meals, meat meals, fish, fish meals, oils, fats, grains, vegetables, fruits, flavorings, supplements, vitamins and minerals.

Of course, you must still do your homework. Review company websites and make phone calls to the manufacturer to get your questions answered about nutritional adequacy and formulation. The great news is the number of ethical pet food companies using all human-grade ingredients is skyrocketing. Every day new pet food companies enter the market offering organic, free range, Global Animal Partnership-rated meats and GMO-free produce.

In contrast, you’ll find that processed pet food producers offer few if any specifics on how their ingredients are sourced. On their websites, for example, there’s no mention of human grade or USDA-inspected facilities, nor how the food is processed. This means the food is not human grade but rendered, and is made in a pet food processing plant that is not held to the same standards as a human food facility.

If you’re interested in feeding your dog or cat a commercial pet food that has natural ingredients, I encourage you to ignore the packaging and marketing buzz­words. Instead, I recommend carefully researching not only the ingredients listed on the label, but also where those ingredients were sourced, and the process used to manufacture the finished the product.

If your goal is to feed your furry family member a truly natural diet, 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.