Translate This Blog

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."


  1. Do these nutritionists even look at the top-tier brands of dry dog food? Brands like Nature's Variety, Solid Gold, Wellness, Orijen, etc.? Or Taste of the Wild, Merrick, Canidae, Natural Balance, Fromm, Acana..... There are so many foods that I would place WORLDS above anything from Hill's, Purina, Iams or Royal Canin in quality and nutrition. There is nothing made by those four brands listed that I would ever feed my dogs. I will never understand why there are so many veterinarians that push that junk. Is it better than Beneful? Sure. But you're still feeding the equivalent of pizza (which is an upgrade from the cotton-candy which is Beneful). I'm not against manufactured foods, but nobody is going to convince me that the brands you mentioned are high-quality diets.

  2. Karissa, these nutritionists are the specialists in their field, the ones who do the majority of teaching and research, and the ones who know ALL of the foods on the market. They know far more about the ingredients and manufacturing than you or I do. They have spent an average of 4-5 years AFTER vet school pursuing education, expertise, and research in the field of animal nutrition. And after all of that they have to take a qualifying exam which has an average pass rate of 30-40%.

    This is far more than even I have done or will do, and certainly far more than any lay person has done by reading articles on the internet or talking to food reps. You'd be surprised at the inconsistencies in those diets you mentioned, as well as the lack of quality control they have over the actual manufacturing. I certainly have been whenever I've gotten opinions from specialists.

    But you've already said that nobody is going to convince you of these facts, so I'm not going to try further. Just realize that your opinion is contrary to the facts presented by doctors who are significantly more informed on these issues than either one of us. I will trust their views and comments.

  3. Karissa, I bet you also buy Organic vegetables from Whole Foods for 10 bucks a pound and think it's actually beneficial to you. I'm also a physician and its all a bunch of garbage. It is marketing to cater to, well, idiots like you who buy it. None of the terminology they use is regulated to any standard, their "small company = better quality" actually usually is the opposite and they have difficulty with their quality control. Also, there is ZERO proven health benefit to all of these gimmicky categorizations of food. "The equivalent of pizza"? Did you pull that out of your ass? Give me a break. Go get an education.

    1. Hey genius -- For someone who claims to have a PhD behind his name you sure have cruddy reading comprehension skills. Note that it was Dr. Bern who made the comment, "Eating a cheap food is similar to a human subsisting on pizza, hamburgers, and an occasional salad or carrots." Thanks for dredging up two year old posts. And no, my opinion hasn't changed -- and no, I don't buy organic.

  4. I hope I am doing the right thing, I have only ever fed my Rottie Royal Canin puppy foid and now adult food. She's fit, healthy and happy, thriw in the odd raw carrot, cooked veggies, and fried chicken breast for training... She's a great size and weight and hopefully the dreaded displacia will never bother her...

    1. Royal Canin is a great quality food and is what I feed to my own dogs. However, hip dysplasia is mostly a genetic disease, meaning that the main reason dogs develop the disorder is due to their genes, not external factors.

  5. I've always fed the dogs (shepherds) in my kennels BARF. Bones And Raw Food. Species-appropriate food. Dogs are what? 98% genetically wolves, right? What do wolves eat? Corn? Rice? Soy? I don't think so. Real Meat and Real bones encourage gnawing which supplies natural Glucosamine, calcium, and keeps jaws strong and teeth sparkling clean. So much for "greenies" and "milkbones", et cetera. Meat supplies the majority of nutrients a dog requires to grow and keep strong and healthy. I do, however, throw in some greens and colourful veggies/fruit from my garden--but in very small quantities.

    I don't trust any company selling me a bag of food at a $1.00 per pound--or more--to tell me what is really in that bag. Sorry, I don't much trust what the "experts" and "authorities" have to say, either! What is more, even with a BARF diet, we are still shortchanging our dogs due to the use of GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and all of the other crap in the feed given to factory farmed animals--unless one raises one's own (organic) meat animals--which I am seriously considering . . .

    BTW, as a human animal--my species appropriate diet is, imo, vegan. Plus, I grow my own--so I know it's organic--and from open-pollinated seeds.

    Eating what everyone else was eating made me sick (hypertention, high cholesterol, etc.), fat, slow, tired, bloated, in a brain fog, etc. Feeding my dogs what the "experts" told me to feed--well--it was "okay", but I had to also give them algae and tons of milkbones for their teeth or drag them to the dentist for an annual (expensive) cleaning. Their coats never really looked shiny/healthy without adding some supplements. I just didn't feel that I was doing my best for them. Now, I do! And there is a difference!

    BTW, for the most part, it only costs me about 25% more to feed a meat, bone raw diet.

    1. Krystalyn, I appreciate your passion but unfortunately you are making several mistakes.

      Genetic similarity doesn't necessarily equate to other similarities. Humans and bananas share 50% of the same DNA, but I doubt anyone would confuse the two or think that both need the same kind of care and nutrition. Chimpanzees are less than 1% genetically different than humans, yet there are worlds of difference in their anatomy. Over the tens of thousands of years that dogs have been with humans they have changed about a dozen genes related to digestion and nutrition, giving them a far greater ability to process carbohydrates than wolves. So it's absolutely, positively false to feed a dog a diet good for wolves, as there are some significant differences in their digestive processes. In fact, multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that dogs can digest and process nutrients from soy and corn gluten just as well as they can from meat sources. But I am concerned that you would not believe proven science.

      You "throw in some greens". Do you know what percentage you should use? Do you know which veggies and fruit provide different percentages of nutrients? Simply adding a few colorful fruits/veggies doesn't equate balanced nutrition.

      Are you feeding organ meat as well? Simply feeding muscle meat is NOT sufficient for good health. That provides a lot of protein but there are many, many necessary nutrients that are not found in "meat". You need to also feed liver, kidneys, and other internal organs to provide many vitamins and nutrients.

      I'm sorry that you don't trust "experts" and "authorities". These are people with PhDs or specialty certification in animal nutrition, and often people with two doctorates and multiple certifications. If you don't feel that you can trust hundreds of highly educated people around the world who all have done significantly more research and study in this area than either you or I will, how can you justify trusting the very small percentage of people who think that BARF diets are the best form of nutrition? I would encourage you to look at another post I wrote:

      You may think that the appropriate diet for humans is vegan, but our dentition and digestive tract are designed as omnivores. We do not have the teeth or proper stomach or intestinal tract to be strict herbivores. Yes, you can achieve a balanced diet as a vegan, but it takes much more work than having an omnivorous diet that includes meat. Similarly, humans cannot do well on a strictly carnivorous diet.

      I would encourage you to do research beyond the BARF community, and talk to someone who is board-certified in animal nutrition, has a PhD in animal nutrition, or has similar qualifications. You can also search my blog for many more posts on the topic of nutrition, as it is a strong interest of mine.

    2. Dr.Bern, if I may join in on this thread may I ask do you see anything wrong with the more expensive foods? I fed my german shepherd EVO for a long time and when Proctor and Gamble bought them out I switched to feeding him Core by Wellness. I have a new german shepherd puppy coming in a few weeks and I am eyeing a dog food called AKANA.

      My main concern with the foods you mentioned such as Iams and Royal Canin as well as the others is that they do not tell you much about the quality of their ingredients. For instance two brands of dog food may both have chicken meal or chicken as the first ingredient but where did the chickens come from. Are they raised here in the US or from abroad? Are they healthy chickens or do they have diseases or even already dead? Would the chickens be considered legally fit for human sale and consumption? Even the same or similar questions could be raised about the other ingredients. What are your opinions on this?

      Also something that has always irked me is this. Should not dog food manufacturers simply put out the best food no matter what. For instance Proctor and Gamble owns Iams which you said is an okay food. But then they own Eukanuba which is supposed to be a little better than Iams. At the same time they went and purchased the parent company that makes EVO which is a grain free very high dollar food. So why all the different makes? Why not just put out one brand and make it the very best. Does this not prove that some brands are meant to be inferior quality. I would like to know you thoughts on these matters.

    3. Some very good questions, Jeffrey. I'll try to answer them.

      First, I notice that both Evo and Wellness perpetuate the absolutely false idea that dog and cat foods should be grain-free. This is 100% untrue, and I've addressed this in other blogs. Evo also talks about feeding "ancestral diets", which makes no biological sense. Dogs are wolves are NOT the same, especially with regards to their digestion. Dogs have a far greater ability to handle starches and other carbohydrates than do wolves, and this is due to several genes that are different between wolves and dogs. This is well documented.

      So right off the bat I don't like either company because they are buying into and perpetuating the unscientific fads of grain-free and wolf-like diets. If they really believe that either of these are true, I doubt their nutritional knowledge and feel that they are merely making expensive foods to market themselves to people who don't have full animal nutritional knowledge. I would also like to know what Wellness defines as "filler" that they say is not in their foods. I challenge anyone who believes that any given food has "filler" to tell me what exactly that ingredient is, and why it has no nutritional value.

      I never worry about the sources of the ingredients in pet foods. I have never seen any documentation supporting the myth that pet foods contain diseased or dead animals. I would challenge anyone who believes this to provide support for the idea besides a statement on a competitor's website or a blog post. I also know for a fact several of the methods that Royal Canin uses to provide the right quality ingredients. And what evidence do you or anyone else have that Evo or Wellness meet these high standards other than their word? Blue Buffalo insisted that there were never byproducts in their foods until the foods were independently tested and confirmed to have such "banned" ingredients. I trust companies that have a long history of nutritional research as well as the opinions of industry experts around the world (see a more recent post from me:

    4. Your last paragraph brings up an excellent question. The bottom line comes down to price. Let's assume that Company X brings in a panel of board-certified nutritional specialists and develop the Best Pet Food Ever Made(TM). Because of the quality of the ingredients and the manufacturing process, that food is $80 for a 35 pound bag. How well do you think that food would sell in a market where people can buy the same size bag from a competitor for $30? So part of the reason for cheaper foods is to have different price points that people of different economical status can afford to buy.

      The second reason for differing price points is that the cost of ingredients goes up and down in the marketplace. For example, beef has a certain price in the wider market, and the price to purchase it affects everything from the price of steak in a restaurant to buying a brisket from the grocery store, and even the cost to make pet food containing beef. Let's say that a company typically uses beef in their Basic Dog Food(TM), and prices the food at $30 for a 40 pound bag. Drought lowers wheat crop output, which increases the cost for the beef farms to buy food for the cattle. That cost is passed on in the form of an increased price for companies to buy the beef. If the cost of that ingredient rises by 50%, the pet food company has a choice in order to keep their profit margin the same. They can either raise the price of the food, which can potentially lower sales as people seek cheaper alternatives. Or they can look for a cheaper ingredient in order to keep the price the same. The latter is what food companies tend to do, sometimes switching a more expensive ingredient for a cheaper one. Believe it or not, one of the ways to keep a pet food cheap is to periodically change the ingredients list. The more expensive foods have a broader profit margin so that if ingredient prices fluctuate they have some cushion to keep the ingredients the same while not changing the price.

      Believe it or not, changing the ingredients doesn't mean that a food is bad. I've heard many nutritional specialists emphasize that the importance should be on NUTRIENTS, not INGREDIENTS. You can get the same nutrient profile with different ingredients, and the body utilizes them the same.

      Jeffrey, I hope you can see how complex this issue can really be!

    5. I really appreciate the fact that you take the time to answer these questions. I describe myself as having enough knowledge to be dangerous. Like most pet owners I want to feed my dog a food that will give him the best chance at long life and good health. German shepherds can be unhealthy even when they come from reputable breeders.

      I just can't shake this feeling that if I feed my new puppy that is coming soon a food like Pro Plan or Science Diet that I am increasing his risk of getting cancer or some other medical condition and if I feed him something more expensive he will live as long as it is possible to live. I know my thinking isn't scientific but it still affects me.

      As per your responses it makes me think of two additional things. I have read the replies from you and even others that grains are not bad for our dogs and you seem to imply that the brands you mentioned do more research and would be better but have you noticed that even Purina Pro Plan and Iams and Hills Science Diet are getting into the grain free or limited grain dog foods? I do not mean this as a gotcha question but rather it all confuses me.

      And finally have you ever looked at ACANA as a choice of dog food? I live in Kentucky and they claim to buy much of if not most of their ingredients here locally in Ky and they have a new facility here where they make it as well.

      Thanks again for you time.

    6. Again, some great questions, Jeffrey! And I certainly can understand and appreciate the viewpoint from which you are coming.

      Expensive doesn't always equal better when it comes to pet foods. Some brands are more expensive because they have smaller production runs and have to price themselves higher to make up costs. Other foods are more expensive for no reason that I can find. I wouldn't use price as the sole determination of food quality.

      What makes you think that Pro Plan, Science Diet, or any particular food is likely to lead to cancer? As frequently as those foods are used and for as long as they've been used, if there was a real issue we would have seen it by now. The fact is there is no proof that these brands are any more dangerous than any others.

      Your question about "Good" companies producing grain-free is an excellent question! It's worthy of a blog post on its own, so look at my more recent posts within the next week or so for a long reply. But the bottom line is that it comes down to marketing, consumer demand, and market share of a product. The companies are filling demand, not saying that its better.

      I'm not familiar with ACANA, but I would be a little hesitant about a small, local facility that isn't marketing on a wide scale. There are actually more chances for quality control problems, not fewer. I would also want to know whether or not the company owns the production facility.

      A year ago I wrote about what questions to ask pet food companies. If you're willing to do a little research and phone calls, this is what board-certified nutritional specialists consider the important things to ask. And none of them are on the label! You can also look at the posts just before that one to see more information.

  6. Acana and Orijen dog and cat foods are produced by Champion Pet Foods (25 years in business) located in Alberta. They manufacture in their own facility and have recently expanded to Ontario and Kentucky. They produce dry only because they don't want to outsource production of canned foods. Theirs are grain free low carb foods heavy on meat protein, marketed as premium foods sold in specialty pet food stores. I've fed my cats Iams, Hills and Royal Canin for 43 years - all foods with grains and have had long lived healthy pets. I have confidence in my vet's advice and feed what he feeds his pets and it has worked out well.

  7. I recently added a schnauzer puppy to our family, I have a 7 yo schnauzer that I started on blue buffalo. After reading this I'd like to switch them both off bb for a less expensive one. Will this cause my older schnauzer intestinal problems since he's been on it so long? I've always done a 4 week switch over when changing from puppy to adult to healthy weight and now senior ( 3/4 c. Old to 1/4 new and so on)


Thank you for making a comment on my blog! Please be aware that due to spammers putting links in their comments I moderate every comment. ANY COMMENTS WITH AN EXTERNAL LINK NOT RELATED TO THE TOPIC WILL LIKELY BE DELETED AND MARKED AS SPAM. If you are someone who is posting links to increase the traffic to another website, save me and you the time and hassle and simply don't comment. To everyone else.....comment away! I really do enjoy hearing from readers!