Do you know the nutritional composition of your pet’s food? Like, do you REALLY?
It’s completely fine if you don’t. I don’t know the precise nutritional composition of any food I eat, but rather I approach nourishing my body with a heavy dose of common sense and a wide variety of fresh, whole foods. Also mint slices and wine. Processed pet food companies and industry professionals who exist at the unfortunate intersection of the nutrition or veterinary industry and the pet food industry will tell you that this common sense approach for our pets makes people like me dangerous kooks. Similarly, it’s an increasingly common trope of the major players in the processed pet food industry to say that fresh foods or homemade diets are not “science based.” They will also tell you that it is basically impossible to nutritionally balance a homemade diet.
I guess it’s really a miracle that dogs and cats have survived this long hey. Hooray for processed pet food saving animals from themselves.
In reality a homemade or whole food diet, when done correctly, is no less scientific than any other diet, except maybe for the fact that the nutrients weren’t all made by a scientist.
To demonstrate this, I have shared the nutritional data from a recipe I wrote, which is below:
The values here are taken from a recipe I wrote that has been formulated to meet or safely exceed the 2019 AAFCO nutritional requirements for maintenance in adult dogs, which is the same standard used by the commercial pet food industry in Australia (and much of the world) to prepare “complete and balanced” dog food (these values are also listed). I have created this using my experience of having written hundreds of balanced commercial recipes, and with the support of professional nutrition software made by leading animal nutrition researchers, drawing on data from the USDA food composition database, the Australian food composition database, laboratory testing data and independent peer reviewed research.
The loudest voices in this arena of “nutrition” and “science” (or as it is perhaps better labelled, “industry”) will tell you that this desktop approach to determining the nutritional value of food is somehow inferior to the analytic approach that the biggest pet food companies take, because they chemically test their physical food after it has been prepared to ensure the nutrient composition. The thing is, if you don’t process the ingredients to the point that they no longer bear any resemblance (nutritionally or physically) to the food they once came from, you don’t NEED to test your finished product. The only reasons I can think of that would render (lol, pun intended) these tests necessary are that either the ingredients are so severely altered by the heat intensive process of making this product that it is not possible to provide any nutritional assurances without chemical testing, or that they didn’t know for certain exactly what went into the food in the first place. I would absolutely love to be corrected on this because both hypotheses are truly horrifying, but when the applicable Australian Standard defines “meat” broadly as “any part of an animal other than feathers which contains protein¹” and AAFCO themselves say things like “processing may destroy up to 90% of the thiamine in the diet²” it doesn’t instil a whole lot of confidence.
I am not suggesting that these companies shouldn’t test their food. They absolutely should. I am saying they should make products that don’t require chemical testing in order to have any idea what their nutritional composition is.
This insistence that we must test food in its final form for it to be considered “scientific”, as I’ve come to expect with these things, is big pet food company propaganda. But as is so often the case, the message has been filtered through a seemingly innocuous, independent and not-for-profit veterinary association; in this case the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. As per usual, if you flick to the Industry Partners page of their website, you will find that a significant portion of their funding comes from 3 of the 4 biggest processed pet food corporations on the planet (Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Nestle Purina and Royal Canin, who are owned by Mars Petcare). Their handy guide to choosing a pet food is here, and it’s filled with referrals to other associations with equally conflicted interests, like the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, who own the trademark to the term Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® and, according to their own website, got their start care of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (what is the difference between and college and an academy, does anyone know?), and a grant from Hill’s Pet Nutrition. Every single member of the board that certifies these veterinary nutritionists has Google-able links to those same 3 pet food corporations, with the curious exception of one guy who specialises in llama nutrition. Oh and the current sponsors of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition are… YOU GUESSED IT! Same 3 pet food corporations. I have genuinely had trouble finding a single one of these independent-seeming associations that endorses these pet food products and doesn’t have financial ties to them.
Honestly, what a bunch of jokers. Llama guy is by far the most credible of the bunch.
But I digress…
The methodology of writing recipes and then taking data from the established scientific and globally recognised food composition databases is the methodology we apply to human food. There is a calculator on the Australian government’s Food Standards website to assist you to create your advertised nutritional information panel from the nutritional information in their database. The software I use accounts for interactions between nutrients, so I would argue it’s actually far superior to the accepted method for compiling human food’s nutritional information, which takes levels at face value and simply adds them up.
Of course natural foods will vary in their nutritional composition due to factors like the soil, the feed and the weather. Because nature wasn’t scientifically formulated in a lab. Typically, in my experience, people with brains in their head are aware of this and agree that our incredible bodies are capable of accomodating slight nutritional variations in the food we eat. Similarly, the particular recipe I have posted is a little on the high side for healthy fats, because it contains salmon and lamb. Other recipes are lower. The point is, if we consistently provide all of the nutrients our pets require in highly digestible forms (even if they are not perfectly uniform), we are doing them an incredible service and setting them up for a long and healthy life.
In support of this claim I would add that my mint slice and wine consumption in place of a meal featuring every nutrient I require in a perfectly measured “scientific” formulation hasn’t led to any gaping nutritional deficiencies to date.
I fully acknowledge that standards like AAFCO and the vested corporate mechanisms surrounding them are problematic. (Oh, did I not mention that AAFCO also have strong ties to the processed pet food industry? My bad.) I also don’t think you must have or know the information I’ve provided in order for the whole foods diet you’re feeding to be adequate.
But I do think it is important that, as professionals, people like me work towards some formally mandated nutritional benchmarks. I also think it is extremely important to debunk the fear and misinformation pushed by corporations selling garbage products at the expense of our pet’s welfare. And I thoroughly enjoy using their own standards to do this.
The persistent painting of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the ideology of processed pet food as someone who is an uneducated quack peddling woo is getting really, really tired. The fact that these companies are spending more and more energy and money attempting to discredit kooks like me through increasingly creative measures (like recruiting veterinary nutrition micro-influencers who exclusively post shareable infographics about the benefits of processed pet food with literally the same scripts as one another) tells me that they know this, which I suppose is good.
As usual my point is longwinded and wordy, but if you got this far I hope I have alleviated any fears you may have about making the switch to fresh foods that are not “science based” because, as you can see, any product you get from me has been carefully formulated in line with the current available science surrounding canine and feline nutrition.
My Essential Blends make homemade food a breeze and have been formulated to meet the AAFCO standards using any of the common proteins available at the supermarket.
Australian Standard, AS 5812:2017 Manufacturing and marketing of pet food