There are so many types of pet food in stores these days. What should I look for in the list of ingredients, and what should I look out for?
The search for healthy commercial pet foods is complicated. There is no one-size-fits-all diet for humans, and the same is true for pets. Older dogs and cats have specific dietary needs, as do puppies and kittens. Cats need more protein than dogs. Extra consideration also should be given to pets that are pregnant, overweight or have other health conditions. That said, there are some ingredients in commercial pet foods that are consistently recommended, and some that are consistently discouraged.
Experts say the best foods will have an ingredients list that begins with a high-quality protein. Examples of good protein are simple to spot: chicken, salmon, beef, etc. Protein “meals,” such as chicken meal or lamb meal, can include ground animal parts that aren’t actually considered meat, but nonetheless are decent sources of protein. Some say they present a more accurate picture of a dry food’s protein content. Take chicken, for example: Pure chicken meat naturally contains water. Though this water is eventually lost in the processing of the food, it may still appear at the top of the list due to its initial weight. In chicken meal, the water has already been removed, therefore its place on the list is a more reliable indicator of its volume in relation to the other ingredients. That’s where this gets tricky: A food that lists chicken meal as a second ingredient and a grain as the first may actually have more total protein than a food with chicken meat as the first ingredient. High-quality pet foods tend to list a primary protein meat followed by a protein meal within the next few ingredients.
Some pet guardians are turned off by meat byproducts. This is the stuff that finds its way into pet foods because it’s considered unfit for human consumption — these are simply animal parts that would otherwise be inedible. Some animal byproducts and byproduct meals can contain feet, undeveloped eggs, intestines, blood, bones, brains and more. (Watch for “meat and bone meal” or “beef and bone meal;” these are technically byproducts.) Some experts say that byproducts from specified animals are safe and perfectly acceptable sources of protein and amino acids, but many pet owners choose to avoid them altogether. At the same time, some say that including byproducts in pet foods allows us to use more of the animal, and waste less.
Another category of pet-foot ingredients that some find undesirable is digest. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the definition for animal digest is “material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and un-decomposed animal tissue.” It goes on to say what digest can’t contain, but is otherwise very mysterious about what is included. As with byproducts, there’s “chicken digest,” and then there’s “animal digest.” One is distinctly more transparent than the other.
White or brown rice, barley and oats are better than the various processed versions of these grains, such as brewer’s rice and oat hulls. These, along with peanut hulls and other processed grain “hulls,” “meals” and “flours” aren’t dangerous, but they’re less nutritious. Many pets are allergic to corn and wheat, but because corn is so inexpensive, low-quality foods tend to contain a hefty dose of it.
My local grocery store carried only a few products. One, Purina Dog Chow Complete and Balanced dry food, contained first corn, then chicken byproducts, corn gluten and animal fat. It scored a thumbs-up for barley, but it also contained animal digest. The ingredients list of Walmart’s Ol’ Roy Meaty Chunks and Gravy dog food begins with corn, meat and bone meal, soybean meal, and animal fat (preserved with BHA and citric acid).
The local pet supply store, PetSmart, offered an unbelievably wide variety of options. They had the bottom-of-the-barrel dog chows, but they also had top-of-the-line Blue Wilderness. The top ingredients: deboned salmon, menhaden fish meal, chicken meal, potato starch, peas, chicken fat (preserved with natural mixed tocopherols and citric acid) and potatoes. Good stuff, which is why a 4.5-pound bag costs $16.99! Another good option was Nature’s Recipe Farmstand Selects, which contained turkey, turkey meal, ground rice, barley, chicken fat and oatmeal.
Your pet’s diet may also depend on your goals: Is an eco-friendly food a high priority? There are many commercially produced organic options, including Newman’s Own and Organix (which has an impressively healthy ingredients list). Just make sure you verify how “organic” that pet food you’re buying really is. Look for the USDA organic seal and know your label claims. Also, by purchasing certified organic pet foods, you’ll know you’re not getting genetically modified ingredients.
— Alison Rogers, assistant editor
Photo by Tetra Images
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