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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pet Nutrition & Labels #1--Understanding Basic Definitions

Long time readers probably will get tired of me bringing up pet nutrition as frequently as I do, but it really has become an interest of mine.  Just do a quick search on this blog (top left corner) for "nutriton" and you'll see the numerous posts I've written over the years on this topic.  And I still stand by every one of them.
This time I want to spend some time explaining a bit about pet food labels.  There really is a lot that the majority of consumers don't understand, and this misunderstanding contributes to being easily manipulated by the food companies.  And yes, even the best ones are worried about marketing and may use various techniques to give you a particular view of their diets that may not be "real". 
There are a few things to understand about pet food packaging and labels.  Certain aspects are mandated by law, especially when it comes to specific phrases and words.  Other parts of the label can be easily manipulated to make the food appear a certain way.  Do you want to know the biggest secret of all?
You can't judge the quality of a food by reading a label.
Yes, that's surprising but true.  I've had board-certified nutritional specialists admit that they can't read a pet food label and tell exactly how good or bad it is.  And as good as I am about working around the wording I still have to rely on information that never makes it onto the labels.  So how is the average pet owner supposed to tell a good food?  Especially when many vets have misconceptions about some diets?
Today let's start with reviewing some definitions that you may commonly see on labels, advertisements, or in discussions.
Natural--This simply means that nothing additional was added to the diet.  It does not mean that the food is unprocessed.  In fact, many "natural" diets are just as highly cooked, mixed, cut, extruded, and otherwise processed as the "non-natural" diets.  Natural isn't necessarily "better" than other foods, and there is no evidence that the nutritional content is higher quality than other foods.

Organic--This is legally defined by the USDA for human foods.  Pet food companies can use this word if they follow the same guidelines as for human foods.  Natural and organic are not the same!
Holistic--This word has no legal definition and is completely unregulated.  What it means and how it relates to food is completely up to the company that markets it as such.  You can't rely on any consistency between companies as to what this really states.
Human-Grade--This does have an official definition, and can only be used if the food is made in a plant that is also approved for manufacturing human food.  Otherwise this phrase is meaningless.  All pet food should be safe for human consumption!  There should be nothing harmful or malnutritious if a human eats dog or cat food.  By those standards all pet food is "human-grade".  Many people think that this phrase means that they are feeding the same cuts of meat that we ourselves would eat, but this is untrue.  Pet foods can use any cut of meat and it can be "human-grade" using tongue, esophagus, and similar sources that we may not want to eat.  Keep in mind that what we may or may not want to eat is mostly cultural.  Here in the South of the US pickled pigs' feet are a delicacy and a treat.  Yet many people (even a Southerner like myself) would never eat them.  Many cultures routinely eat tongue and stomach from livestock, while others would never touch it.  Hindus won't eat any kind of beef, but most of the rest of the world loves its hamburgers and steaks.  Just because we may not want to eat something doesn't mean that it isn't safe and nutritious.  And just because we want to eat a cut of meat doesn't mean that it's better nutrition.
Meat--You may see this show up on a label, as "meat by-products", "meat meal", or just "meat".  This ingredient is made up of a mixture of mammalian species and there is no way to distinguish which one(s) are used or in what proportions.  Species that would be included as "meat" are beef, pork, goat, and sheep.
Beef Meat--This is any bovine muscle tissue and can include leg muscles, tongue, esophagus, heart, and diaphragm.  Really, any muscle in the entire body of a cow or bull can be included and still be covered under this phrase.
Poultry--Like meat this is a mixture of species, this time avian.  Animals included as poultry would be chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.  Again, there is no way to tell which ones or in what proportions.

No Definitions--The following words and phrases have no official, legal definition and therefore are essentially meaningless:  high quality, super premium, hypoallergenic, high meat, high digestibility.
In the next entry I'll focus on the titles or names of certain pet foods and what those labels actually mean.