Pet food marketing buzzwords: sorting fact from fiction

When looking at a bag of pet food, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of persuasive marketing and trendy buzzwords slapped on the package. So many pet owners come to me with pre-conceived ideas of the best food to feed their pet, that are based on marketing tactics and human nutrition, rather than actual veterinary science and research. Some pet food companies will spread misinformation in this way, overwhelming clients and turning them away from experts by promoting and following trends in human nutrition, tricking pet owners into believing that they should be feeding an all natural, organic, human grade, gluten free, super high protein, superfoods to their pet.

So let’s take a step back, what do all of these buzzwords actually mean, and do they truly improve the health and well-being of pets?

Contains real meat!

Meat on a label, is defined as “the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food.” You cannot have “fake meat” in a pet food, so claiming to contain “real meat” doesn’t actually mean anything; any pet food that contains meat on the ingredients list will contain ‘real’ meat, that follows the above definition. And as I’ve covered before, meat meal or meat by-product meal is higher in protein as it contains less water than meat, and it is REAL meat…just ground up and dried.

>90% meat content

A high meat content diet (90% or higher) or a diet that claims ‘meat as the first ingredient’ does NOT mean a diet is high in protein. This actually depends on a number of factors, particularly the percentage digestibility of the protein. If the pet can’t digest that additional meat, then it’s really just going to poop it out and not derive any benefit. Alot of people claim that we should be feeding our pets (mainly cats) 100% meat diets with no carbs however not only is this an unbalanced diet, a higher meat percentage isn’t automatically going to be healthier than a highly digestible, well formulated, balanced diet. In some cases, a very high meat or very high protein diet can actually predispose your pet to health conditions such as urinary stones or kidney disease as they body struggles to excrete the excess protein.

Superfoods and supplements:

Adding a “superfood” into a diet or some sort of supplement is usually in a miniscule amount that actually doesn’t provide any benefit to the pet. Nutritionists call this fairy dust; you’ll often find these superfood ingredients right at the bottom of the ingredient list with all of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements meaning it’s amount in the diet is negligible. As mentioned in my previous blog, adding a supplement into a food typically doesn’t contain enough to have any benefit to the pet, and usually is just a way to follow current trends in human nutrition and appeal to the owner.

Single protein or ‘hypoallergenic’ foods

Food that is available from pet stores or grocery stores that is labelled as hypoallergenic, is quite misleading; many of these diets claim to be hypoallergenic by not including grains such as corn or wheat, or having a single protein source. However, not only are grains the least likely culprit for food allergies, and the main cause of food allergies are meat proteins; the single protein source included in the diet may actually elicit an allergy therefore the client may not see any improvement on the diet or if the patient isn’t allergic to that protein in the first place, may provide the owner with confirmation bias more than any actual benefit. A food that contains a novel protein (a type of meat your pet has never eaten before such as crocodile, kangaroo, bison etc) can be beneficial if you know your pet has an allergy to more common protein sources (chicken, lamb or beef) but it is always a good idea to undertake a food elimination trial to determine this, before trying a novel protein source which may expose your pet and unwittingly cause an allergy to develop later. These foods that also claim to be hypoallergenic are not formulated in dedicated factories and their protein sources are not hydrolysed (broken down to prevent reactions) UNLESS they are prescription grade therapeutic diets, which are also tested to ensure no foreign proteins are in the end product after hydrolysation. There is also no guarantee that feeding a so-called hypoallergenic diet will prevent your pet developing allergies down the track, especially when most allergies are environmental in origin and food allergies are quite rare.

Human grade ingredients

This is another term that’s fairly misleading. Despite having a ‘human grade’ or ‘human grade ingredients’ label on pet food, this is not defined in animal feed regulations. According to AAFCO;

“Edible is a standard; human-grade is not. For a product to be deemed edible for humans, all ingredients must be human edible and the product must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. If these conditions are met for a pet food, human-grade claims may be made. If these conditions are not met, then it is an unqualified claim and misbrands the product.”

AAFCO Talks Pet Food

Keep in mind, this definition is based on US Federal Regulations, so the definition and regulations in other countries may vary. I’m from Australia, so unless a food has come from the US, the definition “human grade” means nothing when describing an Australian product. Another thing to remember, is that human grade does not automatically mean it is nutritionally adequate for a pet (and vice versa) and a product labelled human grade does not make it any safer than a pet food that isn’t labelled human grade – both products must conform to pet food regulations. It also doesn’t mean the ingredients are of higher quality than a diet that doesn’t contain human grade products as either way the ingredients have been discarded from the human food chain and may or may not be safe for human consumption. I’ve had clients come to me, deeply concerned that rotting carcasses are being used in pet food and they only feed human grade meat; however there are strict regulations and definitions on what can and cannot go into a pet food. Rotting carcasses certainly isn’t one of them.

All natural ingredients:

This is defined as “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject 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 in good manufacturing practices.” It does not mean that it’s higher in nutrient value or that it doesn’t require additional vitamins and minerals to make it complete and balanced – in fact, majority of vitamin and mineral supplements included in pet food are ‘naturally’ derived, therefore a diet that claims to be natural can still contain vitamin supplements. It also, by the definition above, does not exclude dry foods as a “natural” diet can still be subjected to physical processing and heat treatments (cooking, rendering etc).

Free from’ or ‘no addedingredients

No added preservatives, sweeteners, additives, gluten, grains, corn, byproducts….it’s an ever-growing list of ingredients thought to be “bad”. The truth is, no ingredient is inherently bad; animals need nutrients not particular ingredients and the ingredients in pet food are usually there for a reason. We spoken about the benefits of grain in pet food, and that by-products are not evil, but another thing I often see is pet food companies saying they don’t include additives or preservatives. However, a vitamin or mineral supplement (required to balance a diet) would be considered an additive. A diet free from preservatives would likely need to be a wet diet sealed in a can and discarded shortly after opening, as it would rapidly spoil. Most dry foods contain some sort of preservative which allow them to be free from spoilage for a longer period of time – however they also have a lower water content, so spoil alot less readily than a wet diet. Regardless of preservatives, most issues with preservation come from water, and exposure to air, so it’s always important to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when it comes to food storage.

No fillers

AAFCO doesn’t give a definition for fillers, and fillers aren’t really a thing in pet food. A filler is something that is included in a diet to add bulk and contains little to no nutritional value. Many pet food companies try to claim their food contains no fillers, which is true, but no pet food would truly contain fillers by definition – every ingredient in a pet food is in there for a reason and provides some value to the patient. Often grains or fibre are labelled as fillers, however both grains and fibre provide many benefits to the animal! A true filler would be something like sawdust or a dye, which is rarely if ever included in a pet food mainly due to the waste of money it would be to include a product with no purpose in your formulation. So a diet free from fillers really doesn’t make the food superior to or differentiate it from any other diet on the market.

As always, if you’re concerned about an ingredient, trend, or something that claims to be better than all the rest, reach out! Ask your vet what these words mean, because in general they are just based on trying to sell you a product, rather than any actual science.

What buzzwords have you seen on pet food packaging? Do you feel confident you can sort the marketing from the science?

3 thoughts on “Pet food marketing buzzwords: sorting fact from fiction

  1. Pingback: Researching pet foods: What to look for | nutrition rvn

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