Valerie White, DVM
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies. AAFCO regulates the labeling on pet food bags and containers.
Organic: If a dog food is labeled “100% organic”, it must contain 100% organic ingredients. If just labeled “organic”, it must include 95% organic ingredients by weight. “Made with organic” foods contain 70% and must contain 3 listed organic ingredients. Less than 70% organic foods can only name their organic ingredients with no additional claims.
Organic dog food has not been proven to be more nutritious or of any health benefits to dogs or cats. It does not denote superior ingredients or health benefits.
Natural: The designation of natural also bears little impact on a food’s quality for your pet. Some ingredients like BHT/BHA/ethoxyquin are fat preservatives that are considered to be “unnatural”. BHT for example is an antioxidant- something that we know eliminates harmful free radicals. That is how it works as a food preservative. Antioxidants (natural and chemical) are added to dog and cat food to preserve the food and keep it fresh longer. There are natural alternatives like vitamin E, mixed tocopherols, vitamin C and rosemary. But most ingredients are not readily available in nature for use as a preservative- they also must be processed or extracted to work as a food preservative. Levels of natural and unnatural ingredients in dog and cat food have been stringently tested for safety at the levels they are used. BHT, for example, is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen” by the National Institute of Health- when it is used in animals with a forestomach and at high levels. At low levels (and in animals like humans- with no forestomach), it works to neutral free radicals, preserve food and even neutralize other chemicals that can work as carcinogens.
Premium/superpremium/gourmet/holistic: Pet food companies and their advertising departments love to toss around these qualifiers but they have no legal definition in regard to pet food. They carry no information about the quality of food being fed. ANY food can be labeled premium, super premium, gourmet or holistic regardless of ingredients, formulations or nutritional quality.
Human grade ingredients: Human grade also has no legal definition in regards to pet food. Depending on where in the world you are located, a wide variety of food choice, storage, and preparation are available and widely recommended. Live octopus… human grade. Fattened goose liver… human grade. Pickled pigs feet… human grade. Hmmmmmm…..
From the previous posts, we know that most of the words used to describe dog food have no value in describing what is appropriate for your dog.
Basic rules for buying dog food:
1. Larger named companies (Iams, Purina, Hills, Royal Canin, etc) usually have more stringent quality control. That is why recalls are made for these brands- they are routinely screening for problems with their food and alerting you before your dog becomes ill. Large companies also have expert nutritionists and food scientists who perform extensive research on food for your dog.
2. Be wary of food listing fresh fruits/vegetables or meats as their first few ingredients. This looks like a good thing but ingredients are listed in order of weight- fresh fruits/vegs and meats have a lot of water content. What these are adding to the nutritional content of the food may be very minimal and added only to increase our perception of a better food.
3. Grain free is not a good thing for the majority of dogs. Whole grains contain valuable nutrients including protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber while keeping fat and calories lower than meat products. Allergies to grains are very uncommon in dogs. Substituting more expensive starches like potato or tapioca can give the food fewer nutrients, higher glycemic index (spikes in blood sugar) and less fiber than whole grains while costing you more.
Raw diets: Raw diets carry a high risk of transmission of food borne pathogenic bacteria from dogs to humans. That kind of risk is hard to justify since there is no evidence that feeding raw diets is nutritionally beneficial to dogs but there are documented case of salmonellosis in dogs fed raw diets. Without a veterinary nutritionists help, raw diets are at risk of being deficient in essential nutrients and very high in fats.
What are by-products and organ meals?
By-products and meals contain non-rendered clean parts such as the head, feet, abdominal organs that are FREE of fecal content and foreign material. Non- rendered means the parts are not from condemned or dead animals, only animals meant for consumption who were healthy at the time of their death. Specifically excluded are hair, hooves, hides, manure and intestinal contents. These by-products and organ meals are less expensive that white meat chicken breast and sirloin steak but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nutritious for your dog and cost effective for you.
What about DHA/EPA for growing puppies?
DHA and EPA are types of oils that have been show to provide health benefits during growth and development. However, flaxseed and canola oil sources cannot be converted well in dogs and cats, so it is essential to have fish/krill/algal sources in dog food to reap the benefits.
What is the difference between puppy, adult and large breed puppy food?
Pay close attention to how your dog food is labeled. “All life stages” means puppies and adults can eat this food unless the puppy will potentially grow to greater than 50 lbs and is currently growing. Large breed puppies must eat large breed puppy food with adjusted levels of calcium and phosphorus to have appropriate bone growth. Never supplement a large breed growing puppy with vitamins without consulting your veterinarian.