K-State veterinarian warns owners of pet food buzzwords and nutritional value

Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 11:32 AM CST
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MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) - A veterinarian at Kansas State University has warned owners of pet food buzzwords and their actual nutritional value for their furry friends.

Kansas State University says when it comes to choosing the right food for dogs or cats, one of its veterinarians has urged owners to always check the package labeling carefully and be wary of words used to describe the product.

Susan Nelson, clinical professor at the Veterinary Health Center in K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine said that checking the product’s ingredient list is the most common way owners choose a pet food - however, even the ingredient list can be misleading.

“When it comes to the marketing of pet foods, manufacturers know the ingredient list is one of the primary reasons consumers purchase a food, but manufacturers also know they can manipulate the list, staying within legal guidelines, to make the food more attractive to consumers,” Nelson said. “Keep in mind, too, that the ingredient list doesn’t tell you the quality of the ingredients used or if they are used in the proper amounts to provide optimal nutrition.”

Nelson indicated that ingredients on a pet food label are listed in order by their pre-processed weight and not by their weight in the finished product. She said the heaviest ingredients - including those with water in them - are listed first.

“For example, if whole chicken is listed as the first ingredient, the amount of chicken in the food usually weighs much less after processing and would move down the list in rank if the ingredient weight was actually listed after it was processed,” Nelson said.

Nelson also noted that many words used to describe a pet food on its package are lures meant to make food sound more healthy, however, some of these words have no legal or scientific definition when it comes to pet food advertising.

Nelson gave the example of the word “natural” to describe some pet foods. Pet food in the U.S. is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which partners with the Association of American Feed Control Officials - a voluntary organization that creates guidelines for ingredient definitions, product labels, feeding trials and lab analyses of nutrients.

While the FDA does not have a legal definition of what is natural, Nelson said the association does.

“Per the AAFCO definition, the term natural can apply to a single ingredient or to a product as a whole,” Nelson said. “All ingredients in a natural dog food product must meet AAFCO’s definition of natural. In these formulas, all ingredients except vitamins and minerals must come from non-synthetic sources. If any synthetic ingredients are added, it must be stated on the label.”

Nelson also warned of the word “holistic” which does not have a legal definition by the FDA or AAFCO.

“Because of this, the term holistic is used freely without any regulation or oversight,” Nelson said. “Holistic is a marketing term used by many pet food companies to imply whole body health. If a dog food label claims it’s both natural and holistic, only the word natural has any defined meaning.”

Nelson also cautioned that while many ingredients listed in the pet food - especially toward the bottom - may sound appealing to a pet owner, they may have little or no nutritional value for the pet. Examples include apricots and parsley.

“Having a very long list of ingredients does not necessarily make it a better food,” Nelson said. “Conversely, a very short ingredient list might indicate that a diet is not nutritionally complete and balanced for your pet.”

Nelson suggested that pet owners avoid the following in their pet’s food:

  • Flaxseed in cat food as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Cats lack the ability to utilize flaxseed, so there is no added benefit when it is added to their foods.
  • The use of garlic and onions in pet food can lead to a type of anemia in dogs and even more so in cats.
  • Exotic ingredients such as kangaroo, bison and lentils as not much is known about their nutritional effects.
  • While grain-free pet foods may be popular with many pet owners, most dogs and cats are not allergic to grains, so grain-free foods aren’t necessarily better for them.

The veterinarian noted that she does not recommend looking for pet food labeled “complete and balanced” for the life stage of the pet either.

“The two life stages with AAFCO definitions are adult maintenance, and growth and reproduction,” Nelson said. “Foods that are marketed for ‘all life stages’ must meet the more stringent AAFCO guidelines for growth and reproduction.”

Nelson said if a pet food does say complete and balanced, then it must also have a specific statement - known as the AAFCO statement - which says it meets these requirements by feeding trials or meeting specific formulation guidelines.

“This statement is often difficult to find on the bag as it can be in very small print,” she said.

Nelson warned that owners should always ensure any food chosen meets the requirements for the life stage of their pet, such as puppy food for puppies and adult dog food for adult dogs.

“Pet owners should be aware that feeding an all-life stages food to an already overweight adult dog or cat can contribute to obesity, as these foods often have higher caloric density to meet the needs of growing and reproducing animals,” Nelson said. “Also, always double-check that the food chosen is not labeled for intermittent feeding only, as when fed long-term, these foods can lead to nutritional imbalances and inadequacies.”

For more information about how to choose the right pet food, Nelson recommended the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Global Nutrition Committee’s 2021 guidelines and checking with a veterinarian. To access the guidelines, click HERE.