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Why Processed Pet Food Can't Truly Be 'Clean'

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to pet food industry experts, consumers now expect “clean label” pet foods and much more
  • The truth is, it’s impossible to create a “clean” pet food using rendered, extruded ingredients and dozens of nutrient add-ins to replace what was lost during high heat processing
  • Processed pet food manufacturers continue to fall further and further behind the curve in terms of meeting the needs of pet parents who want to nourish their animal companions with natural, wholesome food

According to a recent article in a pet food industry journal, pet parents now expect more than the “clean label” products they’ve been asking for the last few years.1 The obvious question is, at what point in the last few years did clean label pet food become a market staple? (Hint: it didn’t.)

For the record, neither clean eating nor clean labels has an official definition, however, generally speaking, eating clean “… is about eating whole foods, or ‘real’ foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.”2 According to Go Clean Label:

“Clean label is a consumer driven movement, demanding a return to ‘real food’ and transparency through authenticity. Food products containing natural, familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, under­stand, and pronounce. No artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals.”3

In a white paper titled “Future of Food” published by the Kerry Group in Ireland, the company states that, “Clean label has become the ‘cost to play’ in the food and beverage industry.”4

This also holds true for pet food, according to industry experts, “as does the need to now move beyond clean label to something much more.” In just the last three years, “consumers have made clear their desire for true transparency behind the products they buy. Pet food companies should definitely take note.”5

I’m sure this isn’t happy news for processed pet food companies. It’s also telling them to run before they’ve even agreed to walk. After all, “clean label” processed pet food hasn’t exactly overwhelmed the marketplace, despite consumer interest, for what seem like some really obvious reasons.

The Truth: ‘Clean Label’ Processed Pet Food is Pure Marketing Spin

In 2017, processed pet food manufacturer NUTRO, owned by Mars Petcare North America, conducted an online survey of 1,500 dog owners. The survey collected the following data points:6

  • 83% of pet parents make an effort to read their dog’s food label, and half do this always or often
  • Given the option, two thirds (65%) would opt for non-GMO ingredients for their dog’s food
  • 92% say it’s important that their family’s food has ingredients that are whole, simple and not artificial

Shortly after compiling the survey results, NUTRO7 “… launched a new corporate philosophy that focuses on the concept of clean food: NUTRO. FEED CLEAN.”8

“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.”9

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 official definition of “clean food,” anybody can make any claim they like, it seems.

Interestingly, NUTRO also states that in “translating” the human clean eating trend to pet food, they’ll be “creating recipes that satisfy the nutritional needs of dogs.” So, what were they creating before jumping on the clean food bandwagon? Non-nutritional dog food recipes?

Bottom line: The Mars Petcare statement above says nothing specific about the ingredients used and commits to nothing. It’s 100% marketing hype.

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An Example of a ‘Clean’ Dry Dog Food

Since I was curious to understand how rendered pet food could possibly be “clean,” I visited the NUTRO website. Let’s take a look at the ingredient list for one of NUTRO’s “clean” products, WHOLESOME ESSENTIALS™ Adult Dry Dog Food Farm-Raised Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe:10

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.

As is plainly obvious, this list of “clean” ingredients looks nearly identical to the ingredient lists of most processed dry dog foods. I wouldn’t use NUTRO’s words simple, real, or recognizable to describe a dog food formula that contains almost 40 items (most of them nutrient add-ins after high-heat processing destroys the nutrients in the actual food), synthetic vitamins, and numerous impossible-to-pronounce ingredients.

The takeaway here is that processed pet food producers use trendy terms like “clean eating” and “clean labels” as marketing ploys. “Feed grade” rendered and extruded pet food cannot, by definition, be clean, so the terms when applied to these foods are meaningless and worse, misleading.

Will Processed Pet Food Producers and Their Industry Mouthpieces Ever Learn?

Until the goals of the processed pet food industry align with the goals of pet parents to feed dogs and cats optimally nutritious diets and not just inappropriate-but-survivable diets, pet food producers won’t regain consumer confidence or trust in their products.

Too many pet parents are watching their beloved animal companions, at ever younger ages, develop degenerative diseases that dogs and cats in the wild never acquire. And while there are many differences in the lifestyles of domesticated and wild animals, diet is one of the biggest, arguably the most impactful, and the best starting point to improve health.

No, I’m not implying you should “feed your dog like a wolf,” I’m suggesting health-conscious people not fuel their bodies on ultra-processed, highly refined foods, and I’m suggesting they do the same for their family members.

An ever-growing number of pet parents have become too knowledgeable about pet nutrition to keep buying big pet food’s products. The industry continues to ignore the need to explore connections between an exploding number of pets with degenerative diseases, and the relatively recent practice of feeding dogs and cats the same biologically inappropriate processed diet day in and day out for months, years, or a lifetime.

They choose instead to invest in the “science” of feeding animals diets they aren’t designed to eat, as well as in just the right marketing to gloss over the realities of their products.

What to Do If You’ve Lost Trust in the Processed Pet Food Industry

Thanks to low-grade ingredients, too-frequent recalls, and an exploding population of pets with chronic digestive issues, allergies and degenerative disease, it's no wonder so many pet parents are exploring homemade diets, fresh food diets made by smaller, transparent pet food producers, raw diets and other alternatives to the dead, rendered, dubious, processed stuff.

My advice? Search this website for more information on choosing the best diet for your pet. There are dozens of videos and articles here that can help you become more knowledgeable about pet nutrition so that you can make the best diet choices for your own dog or cat. You can also learn what real transparency in pet diets looks like by ordering the Truth About Pet Food 2020 List.

If you want to help change the deceptive practices occurring in the pet food industry, I recommend becoming a member of the Association for Truth in Pet Food, which is the only organization out there committed to holding the regulatory agencies and AAFCO accountable. You can also check this list for the pet food companies that have taken the ingredient transparency pledge.