20 Healthy Tips for 2020 20 Healthy Tips for 2020

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Trendy Proteins — Are They Right for Your Pet?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

novel protein pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A growing number of pet parents are interested in improving the nutritional, environmental and ethical aspects of the diets they feed their dogs and cats (and themselves)
  • Specifically, pet owners are interested in protein sources such as grass fed meat and bone broth, as well as plant superfoods, pulses, and even insects
  • It’s important to realize that only a handful of plant-based foods are appropriate for dogs and cats — and not as sources of protein
  • Legumes (pulses) should be avoided as much as possible in pet diets; insect proteins are not yet approved in the U.S. as ingredients in complete-and-balanced commercial pet food

Pet parents are increasingly looking at the nutritional, environmental and ethical aspects of the diets they feed their dogs and cats. According to a pet food industry journal, consumers are particularly interested in the following protein sources in both pet and human food:1

  • Grass fed meat
  • Bone broth
  • Plant superfoods (e.g. quinoa and chia seeds)
  • Pulses
  • Insects

It's important to note that only the first two items — grass fed meat and bone broth — are ideal protein sources for carnivorous dogs and cats. Let's take a closer look at all five.

Grass Fed Meat

There's a lot of confusion around the term "grass-fed," along with misuse and abuse of the phrase by beef producers. It's important to understand that most calves are fed grass for a certain amount of time, which allows less scrupulous producers to get away with calling their beef grass-fed.

The key to a truly grass fed product is the finishing. Optimal beef is both grass fed and grass-finished. Some of the benefits of grass fed and grass-finished beef include higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other healthy fats. It also has a more balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acids.

Producers of grass fed meats are allowed to define their own standards. That means they can theoretically confine their animals, give them antibiotics and hormones, and still put a grass fed label on the meat as long as the animals were also fed grass.

When shopping for grass fed beef, Dr. Mercola recommends looking for the green American Grassfed (AGA) label. No other grass fed certification offers the same comprehensive assurances as the AGA's label, and no other grass fed program ensures compliance using third-party audits. The AGA label guarantees the meat comes from animals that:

  • Have been fed a 100 percent forage diet
  • Have never been confined in a feedlot
  • Have never received antibiotics or hormones
  • Were born and raised on American family farms (a vast majority of the grass fed meats sold in grocery stores are imported, and without country-of-origin labeling, there's no telling where it came from or what standards were followed)

Why not make a special grass fed beef mini burgers treat for your dog or cat?

Bone Broth

Bone broth is inexpensive to make, easy to prepare and, best of all, incredibly nutritious for pets. When you simmer bones in water overnight (or longer), it allows all of the minerals and marrow to leach out into the water, providing your pet with a variety of nutrients in an easily absorbable form. Some of these nutrients include:

Calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals

Components of collagen and cartilage

Silicon and other trace minerals

Components of bone and bone marrow

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate

The "conditionally essential" amino acids proline, glycine, and glutamine

The boiled down cartilage and collagen in the broth is excellent for dogs with achy joints and may help reduce joint pain and inflammation. Cartilage is also known to support immune system health while the amino acids in bone broth (such as glycine, proline and arginine) further fight inflammation.

The minerals in the broth help support bone health, as does the collagen it contains. The gelatin in bone broth may also support muscle growth, making it useful for athletic dogs and elderly pets.

Bone broth is also easy to digest and provides excellent support for the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, bone broth provides a highly concentrated source of nutrition for pets that have recently been sick, are elderly or have become finicky eaters. It's not a balanced diet, but it works well for a snack (for example, bone broth popsicles) or for pets who are refusing to eat.

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Plant Superfoods

The processed pet food industry admits that "a meat-free diet may result in health problems for carnivorous pets, especially cats,"2 but you wouldn't know it reading the ingredient lists of the vast majority of dog and cat foods they produce.

With that said, there are some nutritious plant superfoods that can be safely added to your pet's diet or as snacks. Quinoa, hailed as a "superfood" by processed pet food manufacturers, isn't one of them. It's an ancient grain, and when it comes to your pet's diet, I recommend minimizing grains and other refined carbs, not adding more.

Most grain-based pet foods contain loads of it because grain is plentiful and cheap. Grain-based pet foods are pro-inflammatory and generally detrimental to the health of dogs and cats because as carnivores, they aren't designed to process food containing grain.

Chia seeds are a different story. Chia is a seed derived from the desert plant Salvia hispanica that grows abundantly in southern Mexico. It's a source of alpha linolenic acid and antioxidants. And unlike flax seeds, chia seeds don't need to be ground.

Chia seeds also provide fiber, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin and zinc. Try sprinkling some chia seeds on your dog's meals or mix some with a little coconut oil for a super nutrient dense bedtime snack.

Pulses

Pulse crops, also called pulses or legumes, are plants with a pod. "Pulse" is the term used to identify the edible seeds of legumes, and is derived from the Latin word puls, meaning thick soup. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)3 recognizes 11 primary pulses:4

Pigeon pea

Lentil

Dry broad beans (horse, broad, field)

Minor pulses (lablab, jack, winged, velvet, and yam beans)

Dry peas (garden, protein)

Vetch

Chickpea

Lupins

Dry cowpea

Bambara groundnut

Dry beans (kidney, lima, azuki, mung, black gram, scarlet runner, rice, moth, and tepary)

Because they are high in fiber, folate, iron (when eaten with a source of vitamin C), and complex carbohydrates, and are also low in fat, pulse crops are considered nutritious for humans by some nutritionists, and not by others.

The reason some nutritionists advise keeping legume intake minimal is the same reason I recommend avoiding feeding these foods to pets — the presence of Nutritionally Active Factors (NAFs), including phytates that are naturally found in legumes.

Phytates are substances that many mammals, including dogs and cats, can't break down because they lack phytase, the enzyme necessary to process phytic acid. Phytates bind minerals (including zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium), leeching them out of your pet's body. Phytates may contribute to gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances and leaky gut.

Insects

Insect-based pet foods are being introduced in the U.K., France, Germany, and Italy5 and insect flours are being used by some companies in the U.S. to make pet treats. AAFCO has approved black soldier flies for poultry, but still no green light for use in pet foods.

Some of the insects currently being used in pet food and treats in other countries include the black soldier fly, crickets, and mealworms. Potential benefits of insect-based pet foods:

Insects are a protein source — Depending on the species, insects can be a good to great source of not only protein, but also fat, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Importantly, the amino acid profile of insects can be more complete than that of vegetable protein — again, depending on the species.

Insects may prove to be an additional novel protein source for pets with food sensitivities/allergies — Traditional veterinary and pet food industry recommendations over the last several decades have called for dogs and cats to be fed processed pet food twice a day, every day, year in and year out.

As a result, we have generations of dogs and cats with gut issues, food sensitivities and a host of chronic diseases resulting from daily ingestion of poor-quality diets containing the same protein sources, typically chicken, fish, beef or lamb.

In response, pet food manufacturers have started offering formulas containing exotic and novel proteins such as venison, kangaroo and rabbit. This has created a situation in which it's increasingly difficult to find a novel protein to offer pets who need an elimination diet to resolve a serious food intolerance problem. Insect-based pet food may offer an additional option for these pets.

With that said, if pet parents were advised at the outset to feed their animal companions a variety of common proteins like chicken, beef and lamb from high-quality sources on a rotating basis, it's unlikely we'd be seeing the epidemic of food sensitivities that exists today.

Environmental sustainability — Factory farming requires huge quantities of energy, water and land, not to mention the significant concerns about livestock welfare and pollutant effects. According to veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates, writing for PetMD:

"Insect farming can be accomplished ethically, more efficiently and with fewer resources. It produces little methane and ammonia, and it does not require any hormones or antibiotics. The low environmental impact of insect-based pet foods is their most notable, potential advantage."6

Potential downsides to insect-based pet foods include a lack of scientific research (and therefore, lack of AAFCO acceptance at this point), the "yuck factor" (many people in the U.S. are revolted by the thought of eating insects, and they're not about to feed them to furry family members), and it's likely that if and when they're researched and approved by AAFCO, insect-based ingredients will be primarily found in ultra-processed pet diets and treats.