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By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

Natural pet food. There is much confusion today as to just what kind of food could or should be called "natural pet food".

Does natural mean that absolutely nothing can be done to or added to a food? Does natural mean the food product was strictly organically grown or fed? (And what exactly does "organic" really mean?) Can a natural food product have other "natural" substances added such as flavor enhancers and still qualify as natural?

The dictionary gives us some clues when natural is defined as "Present in or produced by nature. Conforming to the usual course of nature. etc."

You can see that even the dictionary has multiple connotations for the term natural. So you may have to rely on your own common sense to tell you which pet food is a natural product and which falls short of your concept.

There has recently been some important news for pet owners that will help to ensure some standards in the pet food industry, standards that will help us decide which foods to feed our dogs (and cats).

In the summer of 2001 the Pet Food Committee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) obtained approval for suggested guidelines for manufacturers of pet foods to follow when referring to the term natural.

When it comes to labeling commercial feeds, pet foods, and specialty pet foods the use of the term "natural" is only acceptable in reference to the product as a whole when all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet the definition. The use of the term "natural" on the label is false and misleading if any chemically synthesized ingredients are present in the product. (Prophylene Glycol and BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, are two common examples of chemically synthesized ingredients found in some pet foods.) The committee, however, suggested that an exception be made for synthetic vitamin and mineral additives as long as the product is not used as a dietary supplement.

Here is the official AAFCO definition for "natural" as the term relates to pet food:

NATURAL - A feed or ingredient 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.

Until everyone agrees on what exactly the term "natural" means as relating to pet food, you must be guided by your best judgment. It is also important that you are not fooled by key words or gimmicks. Carefully real the label of the food you are considering and use some common sense. Best of luck.

Image: Maureen Didde / via Flickr

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