The Pet Food Ingredient Game
By R. Wysong, DVM
About 30 years ago I began formulating pet foods at a time when the entire pet food industry seemed quagmired and focused on such things as protein and fat percentages without any real regard for ingredients. Since boot leather and soap could make a pet food with the "ideal" percentages, it was clear that analytical percentages do not end the story about pet food value. I was convinced then, as I am now, that a food can be no better than the ingredients of which it is composed. Since this ingredient idea has caught on in the pet food industry, it has taken on a commercial life that distorts and perverts the meaning of the underlying philosophy of food quality and proper feeding practices. Is health reducible to which ingredients a commercial product does or does not have? As contradictory as it may seem to what I have just said, no it is not. Here's why:
The official Publication of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) gives wide latitude for ingredients that can be used in animal foods. As I have pointed out in my book, The Truth About Pet Foods, approved ingredients can include*:
- dehydrated garbage
- undried processed animal waste products
- polyethylene roughage replacement (plastic)
- hydrolyzed poultry feathers
- hydrolyzed hair
- hydrolyzed leather meal
- poultry hatchery by-product
- meat meal tankage
- peanut hulls
- ground almond shells
(Association of American Feed Control Officials, 1998 Official Publication)
Simultaneously, this same regulatory agency prohibits the use of many proven beneficial natural ingredients that one can find readily available for human consumption such as bee pollen, glucosamine, L-carnitine, spirulina and many other nutraceuticals. It would be easy to conclude that reason does not rule when it comes to what officially can or cannot be used in pet foods.
From the regulators' standpoint, they operate from the simplistic nutritional idea that the value of food has to do with percentages and that there is no special merit to any particular ingredient. They deny the tens of thousands of scientific research articles proving that the kind of ingredient and its quality can make all the difference in terms of health. They also are silent about the damaging effect of food processing and the impact of time, light, heat, oxygen and proper pet food packaging on nutritional and health value.
So regulators are certainly not the place to go to determine how to feed pets for health. For their way of thinking, as long as a packaged food achieves certain percentages, regardless of ingredients, the manufacturer can claim the food is 100% complete and balanced. Pet owners then proceed to confidently feed such guaranteed foods at every meal thinking all the while they are doing the right thing for their pet. This old school nutritional view is standard practice in human hospitals as well where official dieticians feed diseased and metabolically starved patients a fare of jello, instant potatoes, powdered eggs, white flour rolls and oleomargarine because their charts say such diets contain the correct percentages of certain nutrients. Hospitals are a good place to go if you want to get sick!
The 100% Complete Myth
Consumers are increasingly becoming alert to the value of more natural foods. Everyone intuitively knows that the closer the diet is to real, fresh, wholesome foods, the better the chance that good health will result. Unfortunately, people often do not apply this same common sense to pet foods. Instead they purchase "100% complete and balanced " processed foods, perhaps even going the extra mile and selecting "super premium" or "natural" brands, thinking they are doing the best that can be done. They surrender their mind to a commercial ploy (100% completeness) and do to their pets what they would never do to themselves or their family - eat the same packaged product at every meal, day in and day out. No processed food can be "100% complete and balanced " because there is not a person on the planet who has 100% knowledge of nutrition. The claim on its face is absurd. Understanding this simple principle is more important than any pet food formulation regardless of the merits of its ingredients. Everything that follows will begin with that premise, i.e., no food should be fed exclusively on a continuous basis no matter what the claims of completeness or ingredient quality.
Genetics Is The Key
Pets need the food they are biologically adapted to. It's a matter of context. Just as a fish needs to be in water to stay healthy, a pet needs its natural food milieu to be healthy. All creatures must stay true to their design. What could be more obvious or simple?
For a carnivore the correct genetic match is prey, carrion and incidental fresh plant material, and even some fur and feathers, as well as the occasional surprise of unmentionables found in decaying matter. It's not a pretty picture to think that "FiFi" with her pink bow and polished toenails would stoop to such fare, but that is precisely the food she is designed to eat. Since that is her design, matching food to that design (minus the more disgusting and unnecessary elements) is also the key to her health. (See our line of Wysong TNT™ processed raw cat and dog foods.)
The Disease Price
We may prefer to feed a packaged, sterile, steam-cleaned, dried, farinaceous chunk cleverly shaped like a pork chop, but let's not kid ourselves, that is not the food a pet is designed for ... regardless of the claims about ingredients on the label making one think it is five-star restaurant fare. Pets may tolerate such food for a time, but in the end nature calls to account. The price to be paid is lost health in the form of susceptibility to infections, dental disease, premature aging, obesity, heart and organ disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and a host of other cruel and painful chronic degenerative diseases. Because our pets are not out in the rigors of nature where they would quickly succumb to such conditions and end their misery, they languish in our protected homes and under veterinary care that does not usually cure but merely treats symptoms and extends the time of suffering. That suffering begins with the way in which we are feeding our pets, not the ingredients in a supposed 100% complete and balanced pet food.
The Perfect Food
What is the solution? It is simple and something I have been preaching for the past 30 years - return pets to their environmental roots. They need - daily - interesting activity, fresh air, clean water, romps in nature, lots of love, and food as close to the form they would find in the wild as possible. Fresh, whole natural foods fit for a carnivore and fed in variety are as good as it can get. Anything less than that is a compromise. Compromise the least if health is the goal. (Same principle applies to you and your family.) To get a packaged food as close as possible to that goal requires the right starting philosophy of pet feeding (described above) and the expertise to design and manufacture such pet foods.
Enter The Profiteers
Elements of these principles (often distorted or misunderstood) have been taken up by an endless line of pet food entrepreneurs. The low fat craze led to low fat pet foods. The high fiber craze led to high fiber pet foods. The "no corn, wheat or soy" craze led to no corn, wheat or soy pet foods. The "omega-3" craze led to pet foods with fish oil. The "variety" craze led to pet foods supposedly offering variety. The "four food groups" craze led to all four bundled into a package. The "raw" craze has led to raw frozen pet foods. The list is endless and the race for pet owner dollars is at a fever pitch. One can only feel sympathy for a concerned pet owner as they stroll along the huge array of pet food options in pet food aisles. Unfortunately, armed with only sound bites and lore they may have heard from a friend, breeder, veterinarian or on a commercial, they often make choices that not only do not serve the health of their pet but may directly contribute to weakened immunity and disease. The first thing consumers should keep in mind is the ideal diet for pets as described above.
No packaged product regardless of its wild claims is ever going to equal that. The next best thing is to home prepare fresh meals. (See our How To Apologize to Your Pet brochure.) If that is not always possible, then products should be selected that are as close to the ideal as possible. (More suggestions below.)
Raw Frozen Pet Food Dangers
At first glance, considering the perfect feeding model I have described - raw, natural, whole - the best food may seem to be one of the raw frozen pet foods now clamoring to capture the "raw" craze. I'm sorry to say that some of these purveyors even use my books and literature to convince pet owners that their frozen products are on track. They take bits and pieces of good information and distort it into something that pretty much misses the point and misleads consumers. Also, these exotic frozen mixtures of ingredients of unknown origin, manufacturing and freezing conditions are most certainly not economical nor the best choice. They may, because of the water content and raw state, be outright dangerous. (See "The Case Against Raw Frozen Pet Foods" available from Wysong.)
Natural And Organic
At second glance then, it may appear that the next best thing would be one of the many "natural," "organic" and "human-grade" dried or canned pet food brands that are now flooding the market. Between these and the raw frozen pet products, ingredient labels start to look outright ridiculous. For example, these are from some typical labels:
Every manner of "pureed" vegetable
Organic beef, rabbit, chicken, turkey, goat, lamb, duck, pork
Organic papaya, persimmons, blueberries, oranges, apples, pears
Organic alfalfa, millet, quinoa and barley sprouts
Cod liver oil
Everything but the kitchen sink is put in so as not to risk losing any customer ... and that would be in there too if a new myth appeared about the special health attributes of porcelain. I say the list is ridiculous not because such ingredients may not be wonderfully nutritious but because the consumer does not really know what part of the ingredient is being put in, in what form, how it is being protected from degradation and toxin formation and, as you will see below, the economic math does not add up. Additionally, feeding complex mixtures of foods (grains, meats, vegetables, fruit, dairy, etc.) at every meal is a digestive stress. Pets need a break once in a while and should have just a meat meal, a slice of watermelon or whatever fits their fancy, all alone so their digestive tract can focus and they can relish the flavor of an actual food.
Although the idea of organic agriculture is excellent, the use of the "organic" name just for marketing isn't. Something may be labeled organic to entice customers but only contain a small percentage of organic (see below). Or, it may be that the particular organic ingredient may be of low nutritional merit - chicken heads, feet and feathers can be "organic." Regardless, even if the food is 100% organic prime rib, that is not an argument for the exclusive feeding of the food to pets.
Then there are claims about "USDA approved" ingredients, "human grade" ingredients and ingredients purchased right out of the meat counter at the grocery store. Again, at first glance - and superficiality is what marketers like to deal with - it may seem that such foods would have merit over others. But such labels only create a perception of quality. People would not consider the food pets are designed for in the wild - whole, raw prey and carrion - "human grade" or "USDA approved." Because something is not "human grade" does not mean it is not healthy or nutritious. For example, chicken viscera is not "human grade" but carries more nutritional value than a clean white chicken breast. Americans think that chicken feet would not be fit for human consumption but many far eastern countries relish them. On the other hand, "human grade" beef steaks fed to pets could cause serious nutritional imbalances and disease if fed exclusively. Pet foods that create the superficial perception of quality (USDA, human grade, etc.) with the intent of getting pet owners to feed a particular food exclusively is not what health is about.
There are also the larger concerns of the Earth's dwindling food resources and swelling population. Should "human grade" food products be taken out of the mouths of people and fed to pets with all of the excellent nutritional non-"human grade" ingredients put in the garbage?
Think about the humane aspect of converting all pet food to "human grade." Millions of tons of pet foods are produced each year. Should cows, pigs, sheep, fish, chickens and other sentient creatures be raised and slaughtered for these foods? Or should the perfectly good and nutritious by-products from human meat processing be used rather than wasted? Why would caring and sensitive pet owners and pet food producers want other creatures - that are themselves capable of being pets - needlessly raised in factory farm confinement and slaughtered when alternative sources of meat are available?
Pet Nutrition Is Serious Health Science
Pet nutrition is not about marketing and who can make the most money quickly. Unfortunately an aspiring pet food mogul off the street can go to any number of private label manufacturers and have a new brand made. These manufacturers have many stock formulas that can be slightly modified to match the current market trend. Voil├ ! A new pet food wonder brand is created.
Pet foods are about pet nutrition, and pet nutrition is a serious health matter. There is an implied ethic in going to market with products that can so seriously impact health. But the ethic is by and large absent in the pet food industry. Starting with the 100% complete and balacned pet food claim and on to all the fad driven brands that glut the shelves, health is not being served. Nobody other than our organization is teaching people the principles I am discussing here. Instead, companies headed by people with no real technical, nutritional, food processing or health skills put themselves out to the public as serious about health ...because that is what the public wants to hear and what sells. Never mind whether producers really understand or can implement healthy principles.
Ingredients are important, true, but not less important than the expertise and principles of the producer who is choosing them, preparing, storing, processing and packaging them. Consumers place a lot of trust that nondescript processed nuggets are what consumers are being led to believe they are.
The consumer is not without guilt in this unfortunate - steady diet of processed pet food - approach to pet feeding. They want everything easy and inexpensive. They don’t want to learn or have to expend too much effort, and they want something simple to base decisions on like: "corn, wheat and soy are evil," or "USDA approved," or "human grade" or "organic is good." They also want something for nothing and think they can get it in a pet food. People want prime choice meats, organic and fresh foods all wrapped up tidy in an easy open, easy pour package, hopefully for 50 cents a pound. They may even pay $1 or a little more if the producer can convince them about how spectacular their product is or how much cancer their pet will get if they choose another brand.
Doing The Math
Now when I go to the grocer or health food store and find these type of ingredients in raw, unprocessed, fresh packaged form, I don't see hardly anything for $1 a pound, let alone 50 cents. Some of the organic meats are more than $15 a pound! Something's afoul. But people are just not putting two and two together.
How could a pet food producer buy such expensive ingredients (as they are leading the public to believe they do) transport them to their "human grade" factory, grind, mix, extrude, retort, freeze, package, ship, advertise and pay salespeople and hefty margins to distributors, brokers and retailers and then sell them at retail for less than the cost of the bare starting materials? They can't. So obviously manufactured pet foods making such claims are misleading (to put it gently). They may have organic filet mignon and caviar in the food but it would have to be an inconsequential sprinkle at best. Consumers must do the math and get realistic in their expectations.
Are By-Products Evil?
In the processing of human foods there are thousands of tons of by-products that cannot be readily sold to humans. Does that make them useless or even inferior? No. Such by-products could include trimmings, viscera, organs, bones, gristle and anything else that humans do not desire. Should these perfectly nutritious items be buried in a landfill? As I mentioned above, while Earth's resources continue to decline and people starve around the globe, should we feed our pets only "human grade" foods and let perfectly edible - and sometimes even more nutritious - by-products go to waste? How is that conscionable or justifiable for either the consumer or the producer?
Road Kill and Euthanized Pets
This shift to "human grade" for pet foods is partly due to a variety of myths that have gotten much stronger legs than they deserve. Lore has spread in the marketplace that road kill and euthanized pets are used in pet foods. I have never seen the proof for this outrageous claim and after thirty years surveying ingredient suppliers I have never found a supplier of such. However, fantastic myths easily get life and the more fantastic they are the more life they have.
Marketers capitalize on this by trying to create such sharp distinctions for consumers to easily grab on to: human grade = good/all others = evil; organic = right/all others = wrong; rice = white/corn and wheat =black. Such simplistic and na´ve distinctions are quick and simple for advertisers and salespeople to use to sway public opinion. But nobody stepping back and using common sense would ever think that something as complex as pet health could ever come from what is or is not in a processed bag of food. Reality is not black or white; it is in shades of gray. Grayness requires some knowledge, judgment and discernment before making choices. It's a little more work but is what we all must do if the world is ever to be a better place and people and pet health are to improve.
Digests, Meals And Other Boogeymen Ingredients
Many pet food producers attempt to sell their products by claiming they contain no "digests" or "meals." The idea is that these are wicked ingredients and consumers should stay away from all products that contain them.
A digest is a product created when enzymes break down foods. After you eat a meal and it is subjected to the acids and enzymes in the digestive tract it becomes a "digest." Fermented (digested) foods made from soy, dairy and vegetables are among the most nutritious of all foods. Some "primitive" peoples bury food in the ground to rot and ferment and then uncover it later to consume it with great savor and nutritional benefit. Scavengers survive, and survive quite well, on fermenting, rotting and digesting foods. Meats, organs and trimmings can be likewise digested in vats creating both liquid and dried forms of commercial pet food digests. Being predigested they are highly concentrated and nutritionally efficient. If we are to listen to the taste buds of pets they would vote yes on digests since they find them highly palatable.
A "meal" is a food product that has been ground, mixed and dried. Meals are often used in pet foods because they are stable, easily transported, stored and handled. Dried pet foods themselves are ground, mixed and dried meals. So that makes an interesting dilemma for those who promote their products as having no meals. As far as processed pet food ingredients go, meals and digests can have their merits. There are degrees of quality as there are with any ingredient. There may be better options such as using fresh whole ingredients, but focusing on finding a product without digests or meals and feeding it exclusively is not the key to health. Given in sufficient dose, anything can be toxic and dangerous, even water and oxygen. Healthy food is a mixed bag of variety, form, preparation, quality, balance ... and reason, not fear mongering or sensationalism.
There is concern about dead, dying, downed (disabled) or diseased (4D) animals being used in pet foods. Other than the fact that this just does not "sound" like wholesome food, there is the concern that these animals may contain drugs or communicable pathogens (although this can be true of "human grade" ingredients as well). My point here will not be to defend unwholesome or dangerous meats but to give some perspective. As you are learning in this article, just about every marketing angle used by pet food manufacturers is more sensationalism than it is substance. What does a carnivore eat in the wild? Is their diet only the strongest, most robust, fastest, healthiest and most elusive prey? Of course not. They seek and primarily feed upon the dead, dying, down and diseased - 4D prey. That's exactly what humans who are alone in the wild, faced with survival, seek as well. Also, consider this, one of the largest markets for 4D meat is racing greyhounds. Not only are 4D meats fed, they are fed raw. Would kennels that make their living on the athletic performance of their animals feed foods that diseased their superstars or did not create results? These owners could buy commercial concoctions not containing 4D meat at the same price or less, but they don't. There's a reason.
If a cow breaks a leg in the field and is down, should it be killed and hauled to a landfill? How about a chicken breast that was bruised on the processing line? Should they all be taken to a landfill because they might be called "4D," "by-products" or "non-human grade?" What is the ethic in discarding a creature that has in essence sacrificed its life for food? That's not how nature does it. Nothing is wasted.
But the supposed evilness of "4D" makes great marketing fodder and soap boxes for some who need a cause or a conspiracy to promote. People don't like the sound of "4D," " by-products," or "non-human grade." Producers know this and play to it. Thus begins the race to see who can get to market first with "USDA approved" and "human grade" pet food labels. Whether it really has anything to do with health is not important. Perception and propaganda create profits.
What To Do
How do concerned pet owners wanting to cut through all the marketing clutter negotiate a path? It is very simple if the basic principles I have discussed above are kept in mind. Here are tips on how to implement an intelligent health and feeding philosophy:
- Learn how to feed fresh food. Alternate these with honest processed foods fed in variety, and complement these foods with well-designed supplements. (See the Wysong brochure, How To Apologize To Your Pet.) Don't get all particular and paranoid about balancing nutrients and ingredient do's and don'ts. Rotate, vary, mix it up and fast once in a while. Trust in nature, not some marketing hype. (Use the same principles for yourself and your family if you want optimal health as well.)
- If you must have human grade or organic foods for your pet, go buy the real thing at the grocery meat counter. Take it home, cut it up and feed it raw. Freeze the remainder into small meal portions and use them for subsequent meals. Don't turn your brain off and go buy "organic" or "human grade" pet foods that for their cost could only contain hints of the real thing. Pet food manufacturers may be clever at marketing, but they are not magicians. One thing is certain, they do not buy ingredients and then sell them to you for less than what they buy them for.
- Use appropriately designed cat and dog supplements such as Call Of The Wild™ and Wild Things™ to balance raw meals and help make them safe if you are not skilled at such meal preparation.
- The best raw, processed food alternative to fresh foods from the grocer is non-thermally processed dried foods - not raw frozen ones. (See Wysong TNT™ processed raw cat and dog foods.) Use these foods for alternate meals and as top dressing to heat processed foods.
- Check the credentials of the person making the decisions in the company whose products you buy. Don't go to a plumber for brain surgery and don't expect serious health products from business people.
- Steer away from pet food brands that are pushing any particular hot buttons such as "natural," "no byproducts," exotic ingredients (quail eggs, watermelon, persimmons, etc.), organic, omega-3, rice and the like. Although these features may bring some merit to a food (if they are put in at other than "pinch" levels), they are not an end in themselves and if the packaged food is fed exclusively can cause more harm than good.
- Steer away from brands that fear monger. For example, there is the no corn or wheat scam - "buy our brand, it has no corn or wheat." (Just saying a product has "no" something is enough to scare the non-thinking public to the brand that doesn't have the boogeyman ingredient. Profiteers know this and play it to the hilt in the pet food industry.)
The truth is, grains are put in dried nugget foods because they contain the starch necessary for the extrusion process. Starch is pretty much starch regardless of whether it comes from corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, millet or whatever. Grains also help decrease the cost of pet foods. They contribute some nutrition but in a properly formulated meat-based pet food the majority of the nutritional value comes from the meat. It is true that animals may develop allergy to corn or wheat but that can happen with rice or any other grain or ingredient as well. Problems are prevented by varying the diet. That is why Wysong has developed the range of formulations it has and puts them in small portion packs so the foods can be rotated. Of all the Wysong formulations, the ones with corn are chosen on almost a 5:1 ratio over all others and are the diets we receive the thousands of raves about, even in those pets supposedly allergic to corn! This is not to tout the merit of corn, or any grain in pet food for that matter. They are sort of a necessary evil in dried extruded foods and any of them can bring some benefit if rotated in the diet.
- Do not feed any pet product exclusively. Variety is the spice of nutrition and the road to good health.
- Features to look for in a packaged pet product would be those that bring the product close to the raw-whole-fresh-natural standard described above: active enzymes, probiotic cultures, natural preservation and protection against food-borne pathogens, proper pet food packaging, intelligent formulation and balance, micronutrient dense, freshly produced, fresh ingredients - and the expertise to do all of this, not just say so on a package or brochure. (Some brands trying to get on the raw food bandwagon make outright false claims about "cold" processing.)
- The pet food company should be able to intelligently explain what they are doing in terms of processing, packaging, product preservation and prevention of food-borne pathogens. It is one thing to simply put a certain ingredient into a pet food, quite another to protect it until it is consumed.
For example, Wysong owns its own manufacturing facilities in order to go beyond industry standard techniques. Special portion pack, light- and oxygen-barrier bags, modified atmosphere flush and natural ingredients to prevent oxidation and food-borne pathogens are part of all Wysong pet products. (See our article Healthy Packaging, wide use of Antioxidants and Wyscin™.)
- Most important, learn. Support a company that helps you learn the truth and teaches you how to be at least somewhat independent of commercial products. Demand that producers provide proof for their claims in the form of good logic, evidence and science. Try to discern the company's true motives, your pocketbook or your pet's health.
Learn how to go beyond The Pet Food Ingredient Game.
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Wysong, R. L. (2002, June 19). Why Modern Medicine is The Greatest Threat to Health. The Wysong
e-Health letter. Wysong Institute, Midland, MI.
Wysong, R. L. (2002). The Truth About Pet Foods. Midland, MI: Inquiry Press.
Wysong, R. L. (2004). Nutrition is a Serious Health Matter: The serious responsibility of manufacturing and selling.
Midland, MI: Inquiry Press.
Wysong, R. L. (2004). The Thinking Person's Master Key to Health (60 Minute CD Discussion). Wysong
Institute, Midland, MI.
Wysong, R. L. (2005). Comparing Pet Foods Based Upon What Matters: The First Study of its Kind in the Pet Food
Industry. Wysong Corporation Midland, MI
Wysong, R. L. & Savant, V. (2005). The Case AGAINST Raw Frozen Pet Foods. Midland, MI: Inquiry Press.
Wysong, The Thinking Person's Pet Food Website, © 2005 http://www.wysong.net