Do Food Labels Tell the Whole Story?
By Inna Shekhtman
Labels on pet food are supposed to help you make healthy choices about the foods you feed your pets, right? You want your pet to thrive, so you spend hours studying ingredients lists, comparing the nutritional labels, and wishing you had a biology degree to help you decide if you should buy the food with antioxidants or probiotics. Sounds familiar? But do labels really tell the whole story about the health benefits of the specific food? The purpose of this article is to explore some of the limitations of the information on the food labels and provide some principals that can guide you to a healthier food choice for your animal companions.
Let’s be honest here, the purpose of most of the claims on the front of a package are to increase sales – not to improve health. They are marketing tools used to pitch and advertise products to you, convincing you of their health benefits and merits. Sometimes these claims are true but other times they are misleading. Let’s look at some common claims and buzzwords used to appeal to the health-conscious consumer:
- All-natural: Just because something is labeled “all-natural” does not make it healthy! The term “all natural” is used as a marketing tool with a variety of definitions, most of which are very vague. When we see the term “all natural”, we imagine whole fresh food coming from a farm with little to no processing and containing no additives or preservatives. However, the reality is that the “all natural” claim on a label assures nothing – almost all foodstuffs are derived from natural products of plants or animals. For example, corn syrup is used to sweet the food for palatability. Corn syrup is “natural” but has little nutritional value and promotes obesity.
- Organic: Some believe the term “organic” means a food is more nutritious than “non-organic”. While the claim of certified organic means GMO free and that the food was raised without chemical fertilizers, it is not necessarily more nutritious. For example, a recent investigation by CBC Marketplace of eggs revealed that eggs laid by free-range chickens from small flocks were significantly higher in nutrients than eggs from a large “organic” egg processor, and that the some organic eggs were comparable in nutrition to conventional eggs.
- Superfood: Strictly speaking, all fruits and vegetables are “superfoods”, because they all provide important vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals for optimal health. A healthy well-balanced pet diet should contain a variety of these foods, but don’t expect any one of them to change your pets life. When it comes to food, variety of whole foods is the key, rather than fixating on individual foods.
- Antioxidants: All vegetables and foods have antioxidants. Various processing methods affect the antioxidant capacity of these foods. So it is just as important to know how a product is processed is as how many antioxidants foods it contains. For example, most antioxidants are destroyed by high temperatures, so a food loaded with blueberries but cooked at high temperatures won’t have much to offer for antioxidants by the time it hits you pets bowl. Rather than overanalyzing, it is best to feed your pet a variety of fresh plant foods, appropriate to their species.
- Complete and Balanced Diet: This means that the pet food meets the minimum nutritional standards set out by the Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO. It does not mean the food is “healthy” or adequate for your pet to thrive. For dogs and cats, this means a variety of proteins, organs, bones, vegetables and some fruit. To demonstrate this point, Dr. Meg Smart from the University in Saskatoon made strange concoction made of old leather boots, wood shavings and motor oil to demonstrate that passed the AAFCO standards, even though it’s inedible. While it is important to be aware a balance in a diet it is not a one-size-fits-all formula that can just be repeated daily. A balanced diet should come from eating a variety of healthy biologically appropriate whole foods, where each individual food is not complete and balanced.
All pet food labels must have a list of ingredients. The ingredients must be listed in order of weight, with heaviest first. The ingredient list can be helpful for understanding what the food contains and if the food has any ingredients that should be avoided. What this list doesn’t tell you is anything about their quality, how these ingredients were processed, or how digestible they are. Some foods contain dozens of ingredients with complicated names that sound like they belong in a chemistry lab, not in your pet’s bowl. Instead of spending hours trying to understand the purpose of these ingredients, use the following basic principles:
- Focus on the first three ingredients, because they are the largest part of the meal. For dogs and cats, those first ingredients should be meat and organs!
- Choose foods that contain whole foods (especially as the first three ingredients) instead of ingredients that have been chemically isolated from their natural source. One rule of thumb you can use is if read an ingredient and you can`t imagine the food in its natural state.
- Try to avoid unnecessary ingredients. For example, my favorite useless ingredient is “natural flavors”. If the food minimally processed, it will have its own flavors and will not need to be flavored with something else.
The point is this: the best way to avoid being misled by the ingredient list on the label is to avoid processed foods altogether. Keep in mind that whole food doesn’t need an ingredients list, because the whole food is the ingredient. Whole foods are the easiest things for our pets to digest.
Modern nutrition science emerged with the identification and isolation of nutrients present in foods. These studies are crucial for development of meal plans designed to prevent specific nutritional deficiencies. As a result every label now has basic nutritional information including calories per serving, protein, moisture, fats, carbohydrates, calcium and phosphorus. Some labels will also contain information about other common vitamins and minerals.
This information is very useful for comparing different foods. It is also useful for figuring out appropriate feeding amount and food combinations for your pet based on their specific needs. For example, dogs that are extremely active may benefit from foods that are slightly higher in fat a few times per week. . However, the effect of individual nutrients was increasingly proving to be an inadequate explanation of the relationship between diet and health. Several studies show that the health benefits of eating a specific formulation is less due to the individual foods and more due to the overall quality and balance of these foods, as well as their preparation method.
While the nutritional analysis is a great tool for getting a general understanding of the food and its nutritional content, it is not an exact science. A complete healthy diet is much more than a collection of nutrients and trying to analysis each nutrient in isolation is a great math exercise. A nutritional analysis will not tell you any more about the health benefits of your pets’ food than throwing darts at a dartboard.
For example, cats require an amino acid called taurine in order to survive. Because this amino acid is easily destroyed by heat, any heavily processed foods need to ensure that the food contains adequate supplemental taurine to compensate for the processing. Taurine is abundant in all raw meats and is what cats would naturally eat in the wild. So cats eating a diet consisting primarily of raw meat will naturally get a sufficient amount of taurine – no math olympics required to figure out if your cat is getting enough taurine because it is naturally abundant in all raw meats.
Going beyond the label
In order to determine which food will help your pet thrive, you need to look further than the information on the label. A healthy diet involves more than just an ingredients or nutrients. A diet refers to the nutrients, the foods that contain those nutrients, how these foods are combined, how biologically appropriate these foods are, as well as how these foods are prepared, and the modes of eating used to consume them. All of these factors affect how the nutrients in the food are utilized for the health and well-being of our pets.
For example, ingredients like soy may have an adequate amount of protein based on AAFCO requirements, but they are less digestible and more taxing on your pets system than an animal-based protein. Another example of this principal is that cooking a protein like beef or chicken drastically changes the composition of that protein. A raw piece of meat is mostly water, some protein and raw unsaturated fat. Cooking this protein will destroy all the enzymes, good bacteria, and certain nutrients naturally found in muscle meat, transform the raw fats into trans-fats and void the meat of most of its moisture content.
So when looking at your pets food choices, consider the following:
- How is the food processed? Is it been over-processed and lost its nutritional value?
- Does it contain whole foods?
- Are the ingredients biologically appropriate for your pet? Does it contain animal or soy protein?
- Are the ingredients good quality? Are they fit for human consumption?
Dogs and cats can survive on many foods. However, if you want them to thrive then make natural, minimally processed, biologically appropriate foods the basis of their diet.