Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pet Food Ingredients: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

When you walk down the pet food aisle at the supermarket you see bags of kibble that show a smiling dog, with a beautiful coat and sparkling teeth, surrounded by images of whole grains, colorful vegetables and meat that looks like what you'd find in the butcher section, and you believe that what is in the bag is made from exactly those ingredients, and that your pooch will be as vigorous as the one depicted. Think again.
Most dog food manufacturers are subsidiaries of the human food industry; companies that have a lot of unfit for consumption waste they sell anyway, to pet owners, and they spend a lot of money to do so.
Your dollars pay for: laboratory research, manufacturing, warehousing, transport to wholesaler and retailer and their overhead and mark-up, advertisements including paying veterinarians for endorsements, and veterinary mark-up for prescription food. How much money you think is spent on ingredients - the only thing that matters to your dog and therefore should matter to you.
Fancy packaging cleverly deflects from what is inside, and manipulates people to believe their eyes and ignore what it says on the ingredients list. Well, I hate to Pan it to you: you have to read it, because whatever we put in our mouths either nourishes or harms us, and it is the same with our animal dependents. More importantly than reading, you must comprehend it, and that is not always easy, but there are two key words: whole and fresh.
When I cook for my dogs I can’t pop a whole cow or lamb in the pot, so I combine muscle meat, a little fat and some organs to match whole as best as possible. On your kibble label, that is meat. Meat is clean flesh from slaughtered animals minus bone. Meat is a good ingredient.
Meat meal is meat with the moisture removed. Not necessarily bad, but it could be imported from who knows where, and preserved with who knows what. Check for that. Every bag of food has a 1-800 number. Call and ask.
Meat by-products are parts other than meat, exclusive of hair, horns, and hooves. That is not so good, and if you find it on the label, it should at least be at the bottom.
A whole chicken, turkey or duck does fit in my pot, and that is what I use. Although it includes frame, back and neck, it also includes lean breast meat. It is whole and good. Whenever it says poultry on your label instead of chicken, turkey or duck, it can, and often does, predominantly consist of backs and frames, and that is bad.
Egg is an excellent protein source, but good only when it is whole. It will say so on the label. Egg product can be any or all parts of the egg.
Downright ugly are MBM - meat and bone meal, and poultry by-products. That can be anything, including road kill and euthanized pets, downers, cut off cancerous tissue, heads and feet, out of date supermarket and restaurant waste. I checked many food bags last year when Will decided that she'd like some kibble with her home-prepared food, and never saw MBM – perhaps crap is coming out of style, or perhaps it is found only in the really cheap stuff I had zero interest to investigate.
Meat is important for your dog’s wellbeing and should be the first ingredient. Meat meal, because the moisture is removed and therefore it is lighter by weight, can be one of the first three, or even five, typically mingled in with grains, potatoes, and/or legumes.
As I touched on in the last blog, I believe that grains are a natural part of a dog’s diet. Dogs have enzymes to digest grains, and they need glucose to produce body-own vitamin C in the liver. Carbs are the primary suppliers of energy for moderately active and sprint dogs, compared to endurance dogs who draw energy from fat. So, unless you are a follower of one certain TV personality and tie your pooch to the treadmill for several hours a day, he probably falls in the former category.
When I cook for my dogs, I alternate between rice, oats, barley and quinoa, and I mostly use whole grains or flakes. In your kibble, the same ingredients are the good ones.
Fragments, such as rice bran or brewers rice can be mill sweepings and are cheap fillers, and bad.
Rice flour, like all flours, is over-processed, and if you see anything that ends with “ose” you are dealing with refined sugars, which are, together with flours, considered to be major contributors to many human ailments.
What about corn? Even people who are okay with grains are often against corn, and some manufacturers take advantage of that trend and advertise “corn free” to infer superior quality food they, of course, charge more for. In my opinion, human-grade ground corn isn’t particularly bad, but it ranks high on the allergen list, and inhibits serotonin uptake. Serotonin is another neurochemical, like dopamine, that can affect behavior: it relaxes and promotes friendly socialness. In studies, low levels increased aggression in all species tested. Because nutritionally corn doesn’t supply anything other grains don’t have, I see no purpose for it in pet food and I don’t use it, but I also don’t think it is the evil ingredient some purport it to be.
Corn gluten meal, on the other hand, is ugly. It is mill residue from cornstarch and syrup production, has no biological value and, like other glutens, is a protein filler. Let me explain: The crude protein value you see on the label is a measurement of nitrogen, not a measurement of quality. If the manufacturer uses little, or inferior animal sourced protein - the poultry or meat by-products, cheap gluten is added to bolster the value on the label. Soy does the same thing, and is an ingredient I wouldn't want to have in my pooch's kibble.
Since the grain free trend, potato has become a popular dog food ingredient. It is marketed as being better than grains, but I fail to see the reasons why. Yes, they are nutrient rich, but also starchy and, if you come from the raw, ancestral diet angle, as unnatural. In addition, some dogs are allergic to members of the nightshade family, which potatoes belong to. That said, I don’t consider whole potatoes a bad ingredient, isolated potato starch is, but do wonder what condition the ones used for dog food are in. I love taters and buy a lot, and hubby Mike was born and raised in Prince Edward Island – for my US readers, it is like Idaho except in Canada, and I am aware how heavily chemically treated they can be for human consumption, and how carefully they have to be stored to prevent greening and spoilage. Processed into kibble, is there quality control?
There is more in kibble than meat and potatoes. Fat, for example, and I will talk about that the next post. Stay tuned - you might be surprised that I question a commonly used, and hailed as healthy, oil.


  1. Interesting post Silvia. One thing I hope you also talk about in your next post is supplements. This is one area that I know I need better clarification. Thanks!

  2. Very informative and hopefully an eye opener to your readers. Yes those so ever lucky spoiled doggies that have their human moms cook for them and get the best. This way they will have many years of happinest and health. Don't ever stop writing and keeping us informed.

  3. Great post. I have my pup on kibble, mostly because I'd rather spend that extra time training or hanging out at the park, which I think he appreciates.

    I am on the grain free train, mostly because it seems to reduce the amount I have to feed to keep the weight on (and thus reduce the amount I have to pick up later). Corn, however, is something I'll likely avoid forever. I spent a lot of time raising horses, and we had a lot living outside one winter and the owner insisted on adding corn to their grain, and those horses were absolutely nuts (which is unusual for a horses that lives outside 24-7). We ran out of corn for a while and noticed that they evened out quite a bit, and got crazy again as soon as the corn was added back. Shortly after we stopped feeding it--it's only purpose was to give the horses more energy to combat the cold, but there are better feeds for that in my book. And these days my little boarder collie mix DOES NOT need any extra energy, so if there's a chance it might have the same effect on a dog as a horse, I just don't see the point (especially as it doesn't seem to add anything particularly crucial to the mix).

  4. What an interesting feedback regarding your horses and corn. Thank you for taking the time to share your observations. For my "hyper" dog clients I always recommend corn-free and lower protein.

    Thank you for your encouragement, Mike.

    Marjorie, I will just touch on supplements with my next post. We used to use supplements and herbs very specifically when we operated our dog food company, but I admit I am a little rusty and supplements can be complex, especially when dealing with specific issues. I direct folks to their holistic veterinarian, and/or Monica Segal or Cat Lane, who are well versed and specialize in nutrition.

  5. I just wanted to confirm the post about corn and horses. We always considered corn to be a "hot feed" and it was to be used with caution as you can founder a horse on it. It was mainly fed to horses who needed to expend a lot of energy in either competiton or work.

  6. Thanks Marjorie. Very interesting for me, since I know nothing about horses.

  7. very interesting read, informative,looking forward to seeing the rest of your articles concerning homefeeding

  8. I really love it. you have highlighted some major issues into it. dog food recipes

  9. I like your post. It is good to see you verbalize from the heart and clarity on this important subject can be easily observed. kornfri hundefoder