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Monday, July 14, 2014

Cheap Food Vs. Expensive

This email hit my inbox recently and brings up a great question....

Hi, your blog is great. Anyways, as someone who knows quite a bit about the beauty industry I know the cheaper products usually work better than more expensive bc the big brands like P&G and Loreal have more money for R&D and formulations between the cheaper and more expensive brands they own are almost identical. An Olay anti wrinkle cream is likely to work better than a cream that costs hundreds of dollars. Is it the same for pet food? What's the relationship between food price and quality?

In general I do believe that you get what you pay for.  More expensive products often are that way for a reason related to the quality of ingredients or manufacturing.  For example, there is a big difference in the cost and features of a Hyundai versus a Lexus.  A Mont Blanc pen is going to last longer and have better quality than a Bic.  But does that extend to pet foods?

All pet foods in America are required by law to meet certain nutritional standards.  But some of them do it better than others.  And just because a food meets a minimum standard doesn't mean that it meets the best standard.  There really is a difference in the quality of the different foods, though it's not easy to tell which is better.  Certainly you can't rely on the commercials and other advertisements, as those are written by marketing experts to deliberately convince you to buy the product.  Not all of them are deceitful but all are by their very nature manipulative.

You also have to be careful about the representatives you meet in pet stores.  Like advertisements these people are trained to make you think their company's food is the best thing ever and all other foods are no better than eating from a trash can.  They are taught all of the right talking points and how to win you over to their point of view.  Some of them even give misinformation, either deliberately or through poor training by the company.

There are definitely differences, though. Just looking at the ingredient list you can usually tell a difference between "good" and "bad" foods.  However, there is certainly both an art and science to reading labels so this isn't always the best determining factor.  As a few examples, by-products aren't bad, "fillers" really aren't used in pet foods, and the first ingredient may not be the ingredient with the highest percentage of nutritients in the food.  Even I have sometimes gotten confused as to which is a high quality brand and which isn't.

In my experience and based on my discussions with nutritional specialists the cheapest foods are lower in quality.  But the most expensive foods may not always be the best ones.  And regardless of the price of the food your pet can certainly survive.  The question is, will it thrive.  Eating a cheap food is similar to a human subsisting on pizza, hamburgers, and an occasional salad or carrots.  Can you live and survive on that diet?  Sure.  But you won't be doing the best thing for your body.

So how do you tell the difference between foods?  Which ones are best?  And what determines that?

Every few years I contact the board-certified veterinary nutritional specialist at the closest vet school and ask them about these issues (most recently in December 2013).  I want to hear from the ones teaching the classes and doing the research, and want to keep up with current information.  Every time I talk to a specialist I end up with the same recommended food list.  And their recommendations are consistently based on things that you can't find on the food label or on the food company's website.  Heck, even I can't get the best information without contacting a specialist!

For the nutritional specialists there are a few very important things they consider besides simply the ingredients.  One factor is whether or not the company is actively engaging in current research on veterinary nutrition.  These companies have a long history of spending money into research on nutrition in animals, both for well pets and to help treat diseases with the right nutrient balance.  They are the ones who help build the current knowledge we have of how nutrition relates to health and physiology in pets. 

The other factor, which in many ways is even more important, is the amount and type of quality control the company has over the manufacturing process.  The best companies test batches daily to ensure consistent nutritional quality and seek out the best quality ingredients.  Some food companies simply can't test their food this rigorously because they don't own the manufacturing plant.  Yes, there are plants that exist and will make a pet food based on the recipe they are given.  But since the company providing the recipe doesn't own the plant, that company can't check the food as well or as consistently.  And then there are those who simply don't bother checking the foods often enough.

So what foods?  What brands?  According to the specialists I've spoken to personally, the following companies' foods are the ones they recommend the most and which they feed their own pets.

Royal Canin

Personally I do think there are different "tiers" of foods within such companies, especially Purina. Of their foods I only typically recommend Pro Plan or Purina ONE as being better than their cheaper ones such as Dog Chow and Cat Chow. 

So I would never go with the cheapest foods, but you don't have to use the most expensive ones to still provide a great quality nutrition.  Hope that helps answer the question!

Here are links to some of my previous posts on nutritional issues with pets.

The Tricky Fine Print On Pet Food
The First Ingredient....It May Not Be The Most!
Corn In Food...No, It's Not Bad
The Great Veterinary Food Conspiracy?

 And inevitably a discussion on nutrition brings out people who are adamantly against manufactured foods, who think that I and other vets are buying into a bunch of hogwash promoted by the food companies merely to sell food, and who think that only their little community of friends and nutritionists know the "truth".  No problem.  I've handled those discussions before, so go ahead.

"Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food."