Processed pet food: it’s not just kibble

Whenever kibble is mentioned, the pushback from opponents is that it’s highly processed therefore how can it possibly be good for you. ‘Processed’ has become a dirty word of late, and I think it’s time we delved abit deeper into how it fits into the pet nutrition world.

First off, it’s very hard to compare human food and pet food – for humans, there’s a number of factors that prevent us from eating a balanced meal every day and we are far less likely to suffer ill effects of a diet lacking in specific nutrients in the short term. For us, we cannot feasibly eat the same food every day, both for our physical and mental health, and even still if we were to eat a diet that was specifically formulated for us along with supplements, we would still encounter difficulties managing our overall health. For our pets, they live a comparatively shorter lifespan, so will experience ill effects of an unbalanced diet much more readily than humans and for this reason, pets eat the same food each day that is complete and balanced with the help of supplements.

In the human nutrition world, the word processed has the connotation that a food is poor quality and lacking in nutritional value. By and large, this is an accurate description of processed human foods; these foods are generally high in fat and carbs and lacking in any vitamins or minerals. When we actually take a step back and look at the definition of “processed”, this simply refers to “performing a series of mechanical or chemical operations on something in order to change or preserve it.” This definition then, covers ANY form of food preparation – raw, cooked or otherwise so there is actually no truly unprocessed diet. The mere act of mechanically assembling, cutting, chopping, preparing a diet is a form of processing as it is changed from its original form. Of course, diets are processed to different extents and may undergo multiple steps. These steps are placed in three different categories that describe the level of processing a food undergoes:

Primary processing
– Necessary to make food edible
– Examples include drying, threshing, butchering meat, milling grains or shelling nuts
– This also includes deboning meat, freezing or smoking fish, canning and irradiating food and homegenizing and pasteurising milk.
– Contamination and spoilage during primary food processing can lead to serious public health threats

Secondary processing
– Turns ingredients into foods
– Examples include baking bread, fermenting fish or making wine
– Sausages are also considered secondary processed as the meat is ground after undergoing primary processing and then extruded back into skins.

Tertiary processing
– Typically uses ingredients that are already primary or secondary processed
– Commercially prepared to optimise ease of consumption, make it ready-to-eat
– These foods are portable and have a longer shelf life
– Examples include frozen meals, pre-mixes like cake mix, snack foods or shelf products
– Restaurant foods can also be considered tertiary processed

Processing does have some drawbacks however; while processing can also add nutrients, some nutrients will be lost in the process of cooking or preparation of the diet. When we talk about how a highly processed (tertiary processed) diet is unhealthy for people, we refer to the fact that they are generally high in fat, and contain added sugar and salt while lacking in essential nutrients and fibre. But the question is, is processed food ‘bad’ for your pet and where does kibble fit into the equation?

While traditional kibble diets would be considered a tertiary processed food, as they have undergone multiple steps and contain secondary processed ingredients such as meat meals, milled grains and added vitamins, they do not actually fit the definition of an ‘unhealthy processed food’. Majority of commercially sold kibble diets are complete and balanced, meaning they must contain all of the necessary nutrients in the correct amounts to sustain the health of the intended species, they are not high in fat, most don’t contain added sugar or salt (as pets aren’t receptive to these flavours anyway) and with growing bodies of research on the topic of the microbiome, many now contain high levels of fibre and prebiotics to feed the gut microbes. It’s also important to keep in mind that we as humans do not have the same nutritional requirements as a dog or cat; while we can generally cope with some fluctuations in our nutrient intakes and any potential imbalances of certain vitamins and minerals by changing and varying our diet day to day, cats and dogs have very strict requirements for certain vitamins and minerals to be in their diet every day, as without them they will rapidly suffer ill effects. With this in consideration, a kibble diet that provides complete and balanced nutrition is the best way to ensure we are meeting all their nutritional needs. It’s for this reason that comparisons of kibble to human junk food are inaccurate and damaging; a more accurate comparison would be a complete meal plan designed by a dietician that you follow each day to guarantee all your nutritional needs are being met.

But isn’t kibble unhealthy?
Kibble is a massive category, and I can’t speak for every diet but as a category, all kibble diets are not ‘unhealthy’. Kibble does not fit the description of an unhealthy ‘junk’ human food, simply for being ‘processed’. In fact, it’s far more likely to address all of your pet’s nutritional needs than that of a homecooked, minimally processed diet, given that 95% of recipes available online are not complete or balanced. There’s also many kibble diets that have been thoroughly researched and trialled to ensure they provide balanced nutrition and maximise the nutrient density of the food, accounting for losses during the cooking process.

It’s important to consider your individual pet’s needs too; some pets will need a diet that IS less processed, due to impaired digestive function or a diminished sense of taste or smell and there are options for these patients! Whereas others may require a diet that is specifically formulated to meet all of their health needs, allergies or a disease state such as a therapeutic kibble diet. There’s also a huge variety of affordable, budget kibble options that allow people of all walks of life to appropriately care and feed their pets without compromising on nutrition. Simply saying all kibble is processed and therefore is bad is not helpful to anyone, it is scaremongering and shaming, and misrepresents an entire category of food.

But shouldn’t we avoid highly processed pet foods?
Kibble isn’t the only type of tertiary processed pet food we have – there’s a huge selection now available on the market of fresh food/wholefood diets that are cooked, packaged and frozen that would be considered ‘highly processed’ by the above definitions. This is why the term highly processed doesn’t automatically mean that it is unhealthy, harmful or bad for your pet’s health.

In fact, as mentioned above, if there is an issue in the primary processing step, we can easily cause a public health threat – minimally processed foods are at much higher risk of causing illness and harm when ingested when compared to a more processed food, as it has typically undergone additional steps to ensure safety. For example, if there is poor handling of raw meat during butchering, a lack of freezing or a ‘kill’ step, an unprocessed raw diet will be significantly more harmful to your pet’s health that a more processed diet such as kibble or frozen fresh foods. You can read more about why I don’t recommend raw diets here.

Simply saying all kibble is processed and therefore is bad is not helpful to anyone, it is scaremongering and shaming, and misrepresents an entire category of food.


Still confused about processed pet food? Leave a question or comment below!