Superfood or superfake?

More and more pet foods are slapping on their labels that their diets include “superfoods” – but what are superfoods? And how do we know that the diet is actually going to provide any noticeable benefit to your pet?

Today’s blog is about why the term superfood shouldn’t sway you decision to purchase a pet food and how to determine if the added extras are worth your money.

What is a superfood?Superfood” is a marketing term for a food that is claimed to confer health benefits resulting from an exceptional nutrient density (Oxford Dictionary). It is not a term that is defined by AAFCO or any other authority on food for neither humans or pets such as the FDA or the Department of Agriculture. Now because of this – literally anything at all can be labelled a superfood. It does not need to fulfil any legal definition, it doesn’t need to declare why it’s considered a superfood (in comparison to anything else), however in 2007, the marketing of products as “superfoods” was prohibited in the EU unless accompanied by a specific authorized health claim supported by credible scientific evidence. In pet food, there is no such regulation.

Unfortunately the popularity of the term once again spilled over into pet foods from the human food industry, which brings with it a whole host of issues. Often I see pet foods using the term superfoods on their labels and in their advertising, however when you look at these diet’s compositions, there is nothing that makes them superior to any other food – in fact, they probably aren’t that super at all.

But it’s in the ingredients!

When reading an ingredient list, pet owners are often looking for ingredients they recognise as they believe this is a marker of quality and the food’s “natural goodness”. Some pet food companies use this to try and manipulate buyers into thinking they are getting a superior product in ways such as stating the diet contains “superfoods” and adding in ingredients they consider superior or natural sounding such as carrots, blueberries, coconut oil, etc. When looking at labels, these diets often contain these ‘added extras’ in such small amounts (listed after the vitamins and minerals) that the ingredient is unlikely to confer any health benefit at all, and probably isn’t even recognisable to the animal eating the food. Again, it’s only designed to appeal to the pet owner.

While some of these ingredients that are being labelled as superfoods may well provide benefits to the pet, such as antioxidants, vitamins, microbiome support and fatty acids, it again comes down to the dose. If the ingredient is way at the end of the ingredients listing, it’s fairy dust – it’s not doing anything for your pet. If it’s a key ingredient, or specifically mentioned in the name of the food, it’s probably going to be helpful to the pet and provide a benefit.

However, if the main constituents of the diet is the so-called superfood, in that it is named on the packaging as an ingredient ie. “Chicken & Acai Berry Diet” then the acai berry being promoted as the superfood is probably a key ingredient and likely of significant benefit to the pet, compared to a diet that just promotes “with superfoods”.

What if my diet doesn’t include named “superfoods”?

On the flip side, some pet foods include isolates and extracts from superfoods, rather than the food itself; this is where the best part of the food that actually provides the benefit, such as the antioxidant component is extracted and included in much higher amounts in the diet, to guarantee a therapeutic dosage. This doesn’t mean it’s artificial or manufactured either, it’s a natural extract like a supplement. An example of this is resveratrol, which is an extract found in berries and red wine that has anti-inflammatory effects as well as anti-cancer effects. Instead of listing grape seed oil, or grape extract on the label, the diet may list resveratrol or polyphenols instead. This doesn’t mean the diet doesn’t have superfoods in it, what it means is the actual active ingredient from the superfood is being included. This is because again, simply eating a berry or drinking red wine isn’t going to provide a therapeutic dose, to achieve those benefits – not unless your consuming it in excessive amounts, which will probably do more harm than good. However, if you use a supplement or the extract isolated from that food, you can have a much higher dose that will provide those benefits. In pet food, using resveratrol as an example, the necessary dose is 4.8g per day – that’s huge! So the likelihood of this level being present in a pet food, is practically impossible. So again, noone is denying the superfood benefits, but the primary issue is getting the effective doses as the product simply being present in the diet will not immediately translate to a benefit.

What if I want the wholefood benefits?

In many cases, it’s probably just as good as giving your pet the superfood as a treat, snack or topper rather than worrying about it being included in the diet as long as it’s safe for your pet’s consumption. Generally, the wholefood ingredients you see at the bottom of the ingredient list are purely to appeal to the pet owner in that it sounds nice and natural – some owners report that they think it will make the diet more flavoursome to the pet, when in truth it’s unlikely the taste of those fruits or vegetables are even detectable by the pet, especially if they are listed with the vitamins and minerals.

The key takeaway here is while these foods may actually be beneficial, we need to consider the levels in the diet before we make a decision if it’s suitable for our pet. Alternatively, providing fresh whole foods as a treat or topper or asking your vet for a supplement that provides the benefit you are looking for generally are much better for your pet’s health than pet foods with so called superfoods included in them.

Does your pet food contain superfoods? Or nutraceuticals? Do you think it’s important these are included in the diet? Leave a comment below if this post changed your mind!

Bibliography

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superfood

https://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/4941-superfoods-as-petfood-ingredients

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339721819_Beynen_AC_2020_Resveratrol_for_dogs

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