You know the saying “I wouldn’t feed it to my dog”? Well there’s never been a more fitting scenario for that expression than this one right here*.
I have generally shied away from discussing processed pet food because it’s not the business I am in. But lately I have started to feel an itch to set a few things straight. Because the processed pet food industry has always been awful, but lately it seems to be getting awful-er. I find this deeply, deeply problematic because on the surface and to the untrained eye, this awful-er-ness looks a lot like improvement.
FINALLY, big pet food companies are listening to us and using REAL foods in their products, they’re putting the meat at the top of the ingredient list, they’re using specific proteins and not mystery meats. Wheat, corn and soy are a distant memory from crappy pet foods of the past and contemporary “premium” pet food is packed full of kale and sweet potato and turmeric and alfalfa and YUCCA EXTRACT OMG YUM
For starters, the yucca plant is toxic to dogs and cats if they eat it fresh, and the reason 20% of pet food companies put it in their products is because it makes their shits smell better.
The reason I find these things so problematic is because, even though it appears to be getting better, pet food is just as awful as it always was. The thing that has changed is that consumers are getting smarter. So pet food companies are getting smarter-er. Sure, they may have added some “superfoods,” but there are fundamental things about these products that will always be awful, no matter how much kale they put in. And it’s not fair that consumers who love their pets and are trying to provide them with the best food they can afford are tricked into buying junk.
Here are some things to be mindful of next time you think "this kibble doesn't look too bad."
MEAT AS THE FIRST INGREDIENT
Great. People know by now that ingredient lists are ordered from biggest to smallest, and it’s widely suggested that you should look for animal protein as the first ingredient in any pet food, and ideally you will see it featured several times in the first 3-5 ingredients. The problem with whole meat featuring here is that, on average, meat is about 75% water. All of this water is removed through the manufacturing process and the remaining meat concentrate contains only ~25% of its starting weight, which would almost certainly push it well below the weight of the ingredient that is truly most plentiful. So when you see a whole meat as the first ingredient and think “wonderful!” remember that this is based on the weight before processing and there is almost certainly much less actual meat in the food than is inferred by this placement.
Ultimately, people have started to clue onto this water thing, and in dialogues surrounding pet food there are recommendations to actually look for meals over whole meats, because they are a concentrated source of animal protein. It’s true that they are a more “concentrated” source of animal protein (but you feed 1/4 as much of it as a result so not really), and many companies are now openly advertising their meat ingredients as meals.
So what exactly is “meat meal”?
Meat meal is a powder produced by the rendering industry that involves boiling, grinding and drying animal products, which have generally been leftover from the slaughter of animals for human consumption. I touched on the Australian Renderer’s Association in this article on the pet foodindustry, when the executive officer went on record and acknowledged that plastic ear tags are not removed from the 30 million heads of livestock that go through their facilities each year. The banner on their website says:
“The rendering industry has led the recycling industry as we know it. For over 200 years we have protected our environment by converting animal by-products from the human food processing industry into edible meat fractions, feed ingredients for livestock, companion animals and fish as well as pharmaceutical ingredients, edible tallow, tallow for soap, cosmetics and biofuels.”
Their technical paper states that “heat treatment can result in three types of nutritional damage” and the first one they list is “total destruction of amino acids.” So it’s fair to say that while it may be high in animal protein, it’s not a very high quality animal protein.
Meat meal is a blanket term and undeniably there will be variances in the quality of the ingredients that go into different ones. But there are also certainties.
All meat meals are made from a form of industry waste, not the prime cuts in the photos on your bag of pet food. Meat meals are all cooked at 100 degrees celsius or more, to the point that they have degraded enough that the fat is separated and they can be turned into a shelf stable powder. And there is no way of knowing specifically where the meat meal in your chosen pet food company came from, because they won’t tell you (please ask them). They will just tell you that it is Australian, like this is the only thing we should care about. But that doesn’t mean it’s not made from waste, or that it's not nutritionally degraded through intense processing. It just means that it’s made from Australian waste (was your waste pasture-raised? Fancy.)
You may notice that some foods list meat AND meat meal. Tricky. Because, in the context of dry pet food, they are effectively exactly the same thing. They may arrive at the factory in a different form - one as a powder and one as a slurry - but they both end up the same in the finished product. In the case of meaty ingredients, they do this because it means there are more animal proteins in the first few ingredients, which they know consumers are looking for.
In the case of plant matter, they do it for the opposite reason. If a food lists “peas” and then one ingredient later it features “pea flour” (they’re both peas), you can rest assured that peas are a very prominent ingredient in this food.
If a food list “sweet potato” as the second ingredient and then “seasonal vegetables” as the third, the main ingredient is highly likely not the single protein listed first. It’s vegetables. If a food list two or three different legumes in the first handful of ingredients, the main ingredient in this food is almost certainly legumes. “Premium” kibble are generally all still at least 50% plant-based and carbohydrate rich ingredients, and quite often this percentage is far, far higher.
But we know that starchy vegetables and legumes aren’t put in this food for their nutritional value. We know this because dogs and cats have no mandated carbohydrate requirement, even by the nutritional standards that these foods follow and advertise on their packaging (which is AAFCO, if you’re interested).
These ingredients are put in because, even though grains are now “bad,” this food still requires starch as a key ingredient, otherwise it would just be a big ol’ bag of powder. And because legumes contain protein, which pushes up the advertised protein levels without increasing costs. It does this while simultaneously reducing the biological value of the protein for dogs and cats, but that doesn’t seem to matter (it should!).
Ingredient splitting creates cognitive dissonance, and this is an incredibly powerful way of getting people to buy things that do the opposite of what they are supposed to. The fact that these companies partake in such practices at all should be reason enough for you to boycott them entirely. It’s deceptive, and businesses are deceptive when they are trying to hide something or mislead you. And they ALL do it. Even the good ones.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Pet food companies used to just write “vitamins & minerals” in their ingredients lists (some still do), as if that was all we needed to know. Few vits and mins, no biggie. More recently they have cottoned-on to people finding this, well, a bit vague, so many have begun listing the specific vitamins and minerals they add. This pushes the ingredients list out to upwards of 50 in some cases, because they pretty much have to add every single essential vitamin and mineral, to compensate for the fact that the extreme processing the ingredients undergo destroys basically any micronutrients that may have once been present.
While this may seem more transparent, what listing the nutrients individually doesn’t change is the fact that they are usually all completely synthetic. Synthetic nutrients are not the same as real nutrients and they are not absorbed by the body in the same way.
Let’s take the example of the trace mineral zinc, which is essential for basically every growth function in dogs, and plays an important role in the health of the skin and coat. Inorganic zinc oxide is the supplement of choice for processed pet foods, despite independent research that has shown natural zinc is absorbed 60-80% better¹ ².
It is also important to view mineral supplementation in the context of the food being supplemented, and zinc is a great example of this. Zinc absorption is hindered by excess calcium, and phytates. An independent 2015 study found lab tests returned calcium levels in leading pet food brands at 3-10 times higher than recommended (and advertised!)³. And phytates are found at high levels in plant ingredients like wheat, corn and legumes.
Take these 3 factors—poor absorption of inorganic zinc, calcium and phytates hindering zinc absorption, and high levels of calcium and phytates in pet food—and you have a foolproof formula for poor zinc utilisation in dogs fed processed pet food. But you can’t just keep supplementing infinite amounts of zinc, because that will impede the utilisation of other nutrients, such as copper⁴.
And that’s just one of the dozens of vitamins, minerals and amino acids your dog or cat requires for health, and is provided through supplementation in commercial pet food. It’s complicated. And that’s really the point I am making. You shouldn’t need a bloody nutrition qualification and a degree in marketing + communications to understand a bag of dog food. But lucky for you I have both.
This is my final point and it’s really more of a pet peeve because I love words and I think they should have meaning. None of the following ones do when you slap them on a bag of cheap waste product and sell it for $100: “natural” “holistic” “organic” “ethically sourced” “hypoallergenic” “science based” “breed specific” “real” “superfood” and, my favourite, “premium”
It’s nothing more than emotional language that speaks to our preconceived notions about what is important to us, but ultimately is meaningless in the oxymoronic context that it exists.
Wow, I feel better for getting all of that off my chest.
If you were hoping to get to the end of this and find advice on how to choose the best processed pet food for you four-legged friend then you’re shit out of luck. My advice is don’t. Even the good ones are garbage.
If you feel that you need to feed processed pet food (which I do understand, contrary to how it may seem), choose a decent tinned food and spend all of the money you save by not buying the most expensive bag of meat flavoured Weet-Bix known to man, and get yourself some eggs, tinned sardines, tahini, seaweed, kefir (etc.), some real veggies and the odd chicken frame, and use them to pimp the shit out of it. If you want to switch to a ready-made, balanced raw option, there are heaps in the frozen section at any good pet store that will cost you about the same as a bag of “premium” kibble, and some of them I recommend highly.
But if you want to venture into the wonderful world of custom, DIY whole foods for pets, my Essential Blends take the stress out of homemade food, so your dog or cat can eat the way they deserve to.
*I am primarily talking about kibble and other “conventional” pet foods that have undergone extreme processing and heat treating, which is basically anything that sits on the shelf and not in the fridge (with a few air/freeze dried exceptions). There have been some great additions to the market in the form of fresh, whole foods for pets in recent years and I think that’s fucking ace and I’m proud to have been involved with some of them. It’s also probably the reason behind all of this “pet food 2.0” business.
John A. Lowe, Julian Wiseman, D. J. A. Cole, Zinc Source Influences Zinc Retention in Hair and Hair Growth in the Dog, The Journal of NutritionVolume 124, Issue 12, December 1994, Pages 2575S–2576S
John A. Lowe, Julian Wiseman, D. J. A. Cole, Absorption and Retention of Zinc when Administered as an Amino-Acid Chelate in the Dog, The Journal of NutritionVolume 124, Issue 12, December 1994, Page 2572