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Features January 2016 Issue

Dog Food Labeling Terms That Aren’t

A number of words on dog food labels entice you to purchase the product, but they have no legal definition

“Human-grade,” “Premium,” “Organic,” “Holistic,” “Gourmet,” Senior,” “Natural,” “Supports Brain Development,” “Helps Muscles Function.”

Pet food is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and companies spend no small amount of money deciding what words to put in large, bold letters on the front of their packages to get you to buy their brands. But many of the come-hither terms have no legal definitions. They mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean. Others do have legal definitions but they do not match popular definition, so they can confuse consumers into thinking a food has a special quality that it doesn’t. And some pet foods are simply misbranded. Herein, a guide for which terms to ignore or at least rethink when choosing food for your canine family member, either because they don’t conform to any official standard or may be examples of misbranding or introduce confusion rather than clarity. Moreover, they may have nothing to do with whether a food is the right one for your pet.

Human-grade. While some pet foods have made “human-grade” claims, the phrase has no definition in any animal feed regulations. In fact, a product formulated for people is unlikely to be nutritionally adequate for dogs and sometimes not even safe for them.

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Furthermore, “human-grade” is not even a standard for food intended for humans. The actual federal term used is “edible,” and it means all ingredients must be human edible, and the product must be manufactured, packed, and stored in accordance with federal regulations in a human food facility. As soon as a pet food company buys a meat product [this term is most appropriate to animal products] to make it into pet food, it is then considered to be inedible, regardless of its previous status prior to purchase by the pet food company. But pet foods have strict regulations for manufacturing and handling, too. The bottom line: “edible,” while it means okay for human consumption, does not make a food safer or more nutritious for your pet. (What if it contained onions or garlic or other ingredients toxic to dogs? It would be “human-grade” but not safe for your pet.)

Premium. It sounds good, but it’s meaningless. It’s “premium” only because the company says it is, and because you will pay more for the term.

Organic. This is a tricky one. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does not have a definition for “organic.” It uses the legal definition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, which states that “organic” products are “produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers…irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” The rub is that the USDA system was never intended to be used on pet food and many pet foods don’t fit well into the current regulations, so it’s anybody’s guess what you are actually getting.

Regardless, “organic” foods produced for humans, in theory, protect the health of the planet, which is all to the good. But the term should not be misconstrued to mean protective of the health of the individual, whether person or dog.

If a pet food does meet the appropriate USDA guidelines, it must be made of at least 95 percent organic ingredients and will display a USDA organic seal. If it doesn’t, you should question the integrity of the claim.

Holistic. Your guess is as good as ours, as this term can mean absolutely anything. Don’t fall for it.

Gourmet. This one is right up there with “premium.” Unless the manufacturer can convince you that Wolfgang Puck personally cooked the kibble, don’t be swayed by this term.

Senior. We’ve seen this one in a number of different guises: “age defying,” “help support a mature, active lifestyle in senior dogs,” “rejuvenate your dog’s aging immune system,” and “help maintain the bone health of mature dogs,” to name a few. None are recognized by AAFCO, and for good reason. They’re all scientifically meaningless.

By law, food for puppies must contain specific levels of nutrients to support growth until the pet reaches adulthood. But there’s no legal requirement for so-called senior food because scientific investigators haven’t nailed down the nutrient requirements of geriatric dogs with enough certainty to create a set of standards.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen dog owners with the very best of intentions inadvertently cause real harm to their older dogs by feeding them diets labeled “senior.” A case in point: a mixed-breed patient of ours whose owners switched her from her usual food to a “senior” diet when she was diagnosed with heart disease at age nine. Unbeknownst to them, the new food was higher in sodium than the kibble she had been eating, necessitating even more drugs to control her condition.

Similarly, another canine patient of ours switched to a “senior” diet when he was diagnosed with kidney disease became even sicker because the food was higher in protein and phosphorus than his typical fare, and that burdened his kidneys all the more.

Calories in “senior” dog foods are all over the place, too. Sometimes a pet turns eight or nine, and her owner puts her on “senior” food only to find her getting heavier and heavier because the new food has significantly more calories than the old. Conversely, some older dogs switched to “senior” food lose weight they can’t afford to because the “senior” diet chosen is much lower in calories. It could — and has — led owners to think their dog is sick with a wasting disease when all that’s going on is that the dog is being starved unintentionally.

Natural. “Natural” certainly comes across as meaning “better,” but as far as dog food, that’s a hard argument to make. One reason is that most ingredients in dog food are natural to begin with, meaning they are derived from plant, animal, or mined sources. The ingredients that tend to be laboratory-synthesized are added vitamins and minerals that fortify the product nutritionally. And they tend to have forbidding-sounding names on the ingredients list, which gives some consumers pause. For instance, synthesized vitamin B6 may appear on the ingredients list as “pyridoxine hydrochloride.” That’s true for human foods, too, but these multisyllabic terms simply describe components of food needed for optimal health. They are safe, and also effective. So while you can buy dog food that is “natural,” and while legally it means the ingredients are not made in a lab, it does not mean the food is better for your dog than one without the “natural” burst on the label.

In truth, concerns about synthetically produced nutrients are not the reason some consumers want natural dog food. They are anxious about preservatives and think natural are safer than synthetic ones. Lab-produced preservatives have been blamed for everything from canine cancer to kidney disease. Don’t lose sleep over these concerns. No proof of such harm has ever been scientifically documented.

On the contrary, preservatives, natural or synthetic, prevent dog food from going rancid or diminishing in quality. And synthetic ones tend to preserve food longer — they’re more potent. In fact, if your dog food contains natural preservatives (and most do now, because of consumer demand rather than scientific data), buy smaller quantities than you would otherwise so your dog goes through it faster and it doesn’t have a chance to spoil.

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