May 1, 2013

It's time for pet food shopping 101! Here are 5 tips to help you manuver around all the different pet food names and recipes more easily and knowledgeably.

1. First, narrow down what sort of food you’d like to feed. There are now more ‘categories’ of pet food than ever before! Kibble is baked or extruded food, shaped into brown pellets. It’s simple and convenient to feed but very heavily processed. Wet food is soft and moist, packaged in a can or flexible retort pouch. Higher moisture food is generally better for pets’ total health, but canned foods are produced at very high temperatures, which can destroy a lot of the natural nutrients. Frozen raw food is now available in many natural pet stores and is a great choice because it’s natural and undergoes almost no processing at all (except for possible HPP or other treatments to eliminate pathogens). Dehydrated and freeze dried diets are a newer, emerging segment. These foods are made gently, but offer the convenience of quick preparation and are shelf stable.

2. Picked a type? Look at the ingredient panel! Like human foods, pet food ingredients are listed in the order of predominance by weight. Those ingredients that make up the majority of the blend come first. Try to look for meat as the number one ingredient unless you’re feeding a premix or your pet has specific health requirements.

Be wary of packages with beautiful illustrations of plump fresh veggies and fruits on the front, if the veggies and fruits actually appear toward the very end of the ingredient list – this means they don’t actually make up much of the final recipe.

Be wary of the shady practice of ‘ingredient splitting’, which breaks a group of ingredients into their individual components, in order to push them further down the ingredient list and allow a more favorable ingredient to appear ahead of it. For example, a food might contain 40% corn but if the manufacturer divides the corn into its individual components (corn meal, corn gluten, corn flour, corn germ, corn bran and ground corn cob are just a few of the possibilities), then each of these components might only make up say, 6% of the total formula. This means they can be dispersed throughout the ingredient list, pushing something else up to the ‘number one spot’.

3. Meat can show up in pet food in a number of different forms. Meat meals are a common ingredient in dry foods and basically mean that the moisture has been removed, so that the finished dried product can be ground into a powdery consistency. Chicken meal, lamb meal or some other specifically named meat in a meal form is OK. ‘Poultry Meal’, ‘Meat Meal’ or worse yet – ‘Meat & Bone Meal’ should be avoided. These are generic terms that encompass a selection of anonymous meats and in some cases might even include road kill, euthanized pets, expired supermarket waste or other meat products that are unfit for human consumption.

4. The vitamins and minerals listed in the ingredient panel also provide good insight into the product. They’re usually listed in the lower portion of the ingredient panel and show what has been added, in order to make the food ‘nutritionally complete’. A very long list of vitamins and minerals indicates that the raw ingredients the company started off with, were probably pretty devoid of nutrition – or the extreme heat and pressure the food underwent, destroyed them. Try to find a food with lots of real, recognizable, food ingredients and a premix with just a few added vitamins & minerals.

5. The guaranteed analysis shows the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and sometimes ash in the product. The protein percentage doesn’t always relate to the quantity or quality of meat in the finished product. Some foods contain ingredients such as ‘poultry by-products’ which might include beaks, feet and feathers. These will add to the total protein content of the finished product, but are highly un-digestible and of little nutritional value. They may even put an additional strain on the liver, kidneys and other systems as the body tries to digest them. Try to avoid by-products at all costs. If you see them on the label, put down the bag and move on.

A guaranteed analysis that shows high fat is not a detrimental as it might sound. Dogs are very capable of utilizing quite high levels of fat and don’t suffer with high levels of bad cholesterol, like people. Beware of added animal fat in the ingredient list, which may be loaded with chemical preservatives. Ideally, the fat in the food should come from the meat itself, or possibly from plant sources like flax or safflower.

A pet food label can be a mine of useful information – and can also be used to cleverly mislead customers about what’s in a product, with the use of illustrations, product names and ‘romance copy’ on the front of the bag. Including carrots and one or two herbs in a formulation, doesn’t constitute a ‘natural’ or ‘holistic’ product. Always read the ingredients panel and determine how many additives are also included to give a truer picture and view the company’s marketing tactics with caution until you’ve assessed what’s actually in the food.