Unlike many terms consumers come across on pet food labels, the word “natural” actually has some meaning. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines “natural” as being derived “solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subjected 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 unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” Perhaps that’s not the most concise definition, but it’s better than nothing.

Owners looking to feed their dogs and cats high quality foods often look for the word “natural” on pet food labels to help inform their choices, but that alone is not sufficient for two important reasons:

1. “Natural” doesn’t always equate to “high quality.”

The AAFCO definition of “natural” basically says that an ingredient can be modified but not over processed. For example, a hunk of beef may be labeled as natural even if it has been cooked or ground into a hamburger. On the other hand, lean finely textured beef (the “pink slime” that was in the news recently) may be derived from cattle but bears so little resemblance to its original state that it could obviously not be labeled as “natural” on a pet food label.

By going with the “natural” label, owners can avoid highly processed ingredients like pink slime, but they still run the risk of feeding their pets low-quality foods. An ingredient may be labeled as natural even if it doesn’t provide much in the way of nutritional value to a pet or is handled in a way that promotes food borne illness. The best way to ensure that pets eat only high quality foods is to purchase products made by companies that put a premium on pet health through research, having veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists on staff, and impeccable quality control.

2. “Natural” says nothing about whether or not a food is nutritionally balanced.

Eating natural ingredients is good, but if they don’t appear in the diet in the right proportions any health benefit they confer will be overwhelmed by the adverse effect of eating an imbalanced diet. Think of it this way. If I were to eat nothing but natural carrots, I would soon get sick (and turn orange), even if the carrots were of the highest quality. We can feed our pets foods made from natural ingredients, but if those foods contain too little or too much of one or more nutrients, their health is going to suffer.

When thinking about balance, we need to shift from the concept of ingredients to one of nutrients. Pets don’t have a nutritional need for beef, they need protein, which many different ingredients can supply. Dogs and cats require certain amounts of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, and protein (even down to the level of individual amino acids) to thrive, but those requirements can be met through an almost infinite combination of ingredients. Owners who focus too much on ingredients and too little on nutrients may be inadvertently putting their pet’s health at risk.

Relying too heavily on general recommendations concerning pet nutrition can also be dangerous. The best source for advice about what to feed a particular pet is the veterinarian who is most familiar with that individual’s health history and nutritional needs.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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