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Be Wary of Pet Food Claims

By Vanessa Voltolina 

“All owners want a food that is satisfactory — complete, balanced, palatable, digestible, and safe — for their pets, [but] some are influenced by marketing terms,” says Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, and Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.

The labels on pet foods, regulated by the 50 states with advice from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), are the only information you’ll have to evaluate them. The claims made on labels, including “premium” and “holistic,” often resonate with us, but don’t necessarily predict quality. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to determine the best food for your pet, and then consider the validity of these six food claims …

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1. Human Grade

The term “human-grade” is deceptive when applied to pet food, warns AAFCO. A human grade food must be under constant FDA supervision, which only exists in the human food supply chain. “[The term] has no legal definition,” says Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD and Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Many ingredients used in pet food manufacturing are actually suitable for human consumption, [so the term sounds] good and is good marketing, but actually means little.”

2. Premium or Gourmet

“Premium has come to mean pet food sold through limited outlets,” explains Dr. Bartges. “These foods are assumed to be higher quality with a more fixed formulation.” Likewise, gourmet implies higher quality, he says. According to FDA labeling guidelines, however, products labeled “premium” or “gourmet” aren’t required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients than regular pet food, nor are they held to any higher nutritional standard. “Again, this is just good marketing,” he says.

3. Holistic

Labels on food that tout a “holistic” product may sound promising, especially when there are so many good connotations with this word. Holistic implies that the ingredients contribute to the animal’s whole health, and that they are natural and do not contain by-products, says Dr. Bartges. Unfortunately, the term has no official meaning or requirement that differentiates it from “non-holistic” foods.

“Some dry holistic diets still contain processed ingredients such as ‘meals,’ which are dehydrated proteins,” adds Dr. Bartges.

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4. Natural and Organic

“Natural” and “organic” are two relatively straightforward food label terms. According to AAFCO, natural refers to any animal, plant, or mineral ingredient that is either unprocessed or subjected to non-synthetic processing such as heat or extraction. Natural products also won’t contain any chemically synthetic additives or processing aids.

“Organic is defined as an ingredient that has been produced and handled in compliance with the USDA Natural Organic Program,” says Dr. Bartges. While this may sound ideal for your pet, Dr. Bartges points out that “natural” pet foods may still contain synthetic nutrients, such as vitamins, provided they carry a disclaimer such as “made with natural ingredients with added vitamins and minerals.”

5. Where’s the Beef?

Pet food ingredients are listed in descending order, based on weight. So, while looking for meat in the top three ingredients can be an easy rule of thumb, it may be misleading. Why? Ingredient splitting. This occurs when several varieties of the same ingredient are used, which allow other ingredients to rise to the top of the list. Some brands do this to insinuate their product is high quality with high protein when it actually falls short.

6. Made in…

It may not be the first thing on your mind, but consider where your pet food is made. Is it produced in a manufacturer’s own factory, or a facility that makes pet food (or other foods) for various brands? “The only way to find out is to call the company,” says Dr. Bartges. For the health and safety of your pet, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask the pet food company for details. Often, the customer care phone number can be found on the bag of pet food. And if there is no number to call, you may want to consider what that says about the brand’s commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

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