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Friday, December 18, 2015

Pet Nutrition & Labels #4--First Ingredients & Manufacturer Manipulation

I'm sure you've all heard "the first ingredient is meat!" bragging claim from some pet food companies.  And that really seems like an important thing, right?  Would you believe that it really doesn't mean much and is very easily manipulated?

Let me show you how.
Look at the following ingredient lists and think about which diet is "better".  The ingredients are listed as they would be on the label, and are actually taken from real pet foods in my local PetSmart.
Food A:  Chicken, chicken meal, ground whole grain sorghum, oat flour, ground whole grain barley, fish meal
Food B:  Chicken, brewers rice, whole grain wheat, poultry by-product meal, soybean meal, corn gluten meal

Food C:  Brewers rice, chicken by-product meal, corn, chicken fat, dried plain beet pulp, natural flavors

Food D:  Chicken by-product meal, corn meal, ground whole grain sorghum, chicken fat, chicken, ground whole grain barley

Can you tell which one is more nutritious?  Some may think Food A or B because they have "real chicken" as the first ingredient.  But if you've read this far you have probably picked up on the fact that this can be manipulated so you're not going to pick that brand.  Some may avoid B, C, and D because of by-products.  Those people don't realize that nutritional specialists consider by-products to be the most nutritional part of the carcass.  Some would avoid C because meat isn't the first ingredient, even though that statement is essentially meaningless (as we will soon see).

Let's stop and break a few things down for a minute.  An ingredient list is based on pre-cooked weight.  The ingredients that weigh more get listed first.  Can you start to see the potential problem there?  The weight of an ingredient says absolutely nothing about its nutritional quality or nutrient profile.  Ingredients are listed in decreasing weight, not decreasing nutritional density. 

Why does this matter?  When you see "chicken", think of a chicken breast you might cook for yourself.  The next time you make chicken for dinner, measure and weigh the breast before you cook it.  Then measure and weigh it after you cook it.  Unless you've added breading, water, sauce, or similar ingredients, after cooking the breast will weigh less, and be smaller.  Why does that happen?  Meat contains a large amount of water, and in the cooking process you remove that component.  Water is actually very heavy (have you lifted a case of bottled water?) and contributes a significant amount to the weight of the food.  So "chicken" on the ingredient list simply weighs more because of water, and therefore is higher on the list.  By the time it makes it through the manufacturing process it weighs a whole lot less.

That ingredient list would be VERY different if it was based on the final product!

"Meal" is ingredients that have been processed before cooking, having been cut up and ground down.  During this process a lot of moisture is lost, which means that the final product may weigh less but contain a higher density of nutrients.  Compare a pound of chicken to a pound of chicken meal.  The meal weighs the same but has less moisture and therefore a higher nutrient density.  So which has more protein and other nutrients?  A pound of chicken or a half pound of chicken meal?  It's possible that the meal is actually more nutritious!

You can hopefully start seeing how the first ingredient isn't necessarily the "best" or most nutritious.  The meal in Food C may give more protein than the chicken in Food B, even though B lists it first!

How else can the ingredients list be manipulated?  Remember that the ingredients are listed by weight of each component.  But several components may give similar nutrient profiles!  Why use so many different ingredients?  Sometimes it's to keep a single ingredient from weighing more and therefore being higher on the list!

Look at Food A.  Chicken and chicken meal are the first ingredients, followed by three different kinds of grains.  These grains all add up to carbohydrates.  What if we simply compared protein versus carbs?  The sorghum, barley, and flour could potentially weigh more when combined than the chicken and chicken meal.  If the company just used ground whole grain barley and not the other ingredients it might actually jump to the first ingredient.  In Food A the first two ingredients are protein sources and the next three are carbohydrates.  Food B has a protein source first followed by two carbs and then another protein.  Which has a higher percentage of protein versus carbohydrates?  We can't tell.  We are never given the absolute weight of the ingredients in order to tell the percentage of each ingredient.

Let's compare Foods B and C, looking at the first two ingredients.  Many people would choose B because "real meat is the first ingredient".  But start piecing together what we've been discussing.  Both may contain the same amount of brewers yeast (though we have no way of knowing).  Remember that meat weighs more than meal, so Food C may actually contain more protein and other nutrients than Food B!  But C doesn't list it first because the meal weighs less than the rice.

Pretend you're a pet food company and you know that consumers are convinced that they should look for meat as the first ingredient.  How can you make sure that your food has this first?  Very simple.  Choose multiple carbohydrate and fiber sources rather than a single one.  Since each ingredient is listed individually, that means that you list each source by themselves rather than their aggregate weight.  Since they individually weigh less than the meat source, that meat suddenly jumps higher on the list.  Voila!  You now have "meat first"!

By now you hopefully understand that the ingredient list merely places the ingredients in order of descending weight.  This doesn't necessarily mean ascending or descending nutrient density.  A higher quality ingredient may be lower on the list just because it weighs less.  And you can't tell how much more or less an ingredient is!  It's only relative position.  Does this kind of a list really tell you what is in your pet's food and what nutritional quality it contains?
Now back to the basic question.  Looking at these four ingredient lists, which one has better quality nutrition?  How can you tell?
You can't! 
Seriously! By simply looking at these ingredients you can't tell anything about the true nutritional quality of the foods.  As you can hopefully see by now (especially if you're reading this whole series and my previous ones on nutrition) you can't just look at the ingredient list to determine quality.  Meditate on and remember the following statement, given by a veterinary nutritionist at a recent conference.

Pets need nutrients, not ingredients.

Think about that for a moment.  What really matters is the nutrients, not the source of the nutrients.  Yes, some food components are more digestible and available to the body than others.  But in general the source doesn't matter if all other things are equal.  If you can get similar quality protein from corn gluten meal or chicken meal, then it really doesn't matter which one is included as an ingredient (and yes, studies have shown that the quality and bioavailability is similar).  Both ingredients will give the same nutrients.  If that is the case, then the only reason to prefer one ingredient over the other is nothing but marketing and consumer psychology.  And those aren't good reasons to pick one ingredient over another.

Confused and surprised yet?
In the next post in this series I'm going to look at examples of how some pet food companies manipulate you with misleading advertising.  And later I'll talk about what questions you can ask food companies to learn more about their food.