The most common misleading claims by pet food makers

When we choose food for our pets, we want to believe we are getting the best we can afford. Unfortunately, advertising and product design can easily distort our view. It is not always the case that the most popular pet food is also the best food, because being superb at marketing is not the same thing as being good at making food.

dog food maze
This is how most people approach choosing their pets’ food.

Here are eight things that pet food companies are not honest about on their packages or in their ads, as they hope to make you choose their brand over those of their competitors, even if it isn’t a better by a grain.

  • Grain-free. Pet owners require grain-free foods; this is a new trend, but at least it’s a sound one. Unlike it does with other trends, the pet food industry has not chosen to dismiss this one; instead, it provides pet owners what they crave—grain-free pet foods. Yet the intention to please pet owners isn’t necessarily an intention to make a better food. The majority of so-called grain-free foods simply use grain substitutes, such as peas or potatoes. These are neither better nor worse but are just different. They serve the same purpose as grain, to act as a glue or a filler and to reduce the price per weight. We are not talking here about whether grain is a bad thing in your pet’s food; that topic deserves a chapter of its own and probably two separate ones, for dogs and cats. However, the main point is that when you switch from grain to something similar, you don’t make a big difference; you can merely declare the product “grain-free” to give the impression that it is better.
  • At least X% of meat. Cats and dogs are carnivores, and they need meat, so what is better than buying a pet food that consists of more than 40%, 50%, or 80% meat? This sounds like a good reason to be happy, but there are two problems with statements like these. First, one can easily manipulate the measurements of ingredients. The most common method is to calculate the weight of the ingredients before processing. For example, meat usually loses at least 3/4 of its total weight when dried, whereas grain loses only 1/5. That means that if you start with 70% meat and 30% grain, you can put “at least 70% meat” on the package, whereas the dried product actually contains 42% meat and 57% grain. But apart from the geeky calculations, the second dubious thing about stating certain amounts of meat in the pet food is that no one has said that more is always better—there are other ingredients a good pet food requires, too, and the quality of the meat is more important than the total amount.
  • Chicken #1 ingredient. Food manufacturers are obliged to list their ingredients in the order corresponding to their amounts. For example, if a lemonade has sugar as the first ingredient, you can be sure that sugar is the most abundant ingredient in it. If a pet food package lists “chicken” first, however, you can’t be so certain. Imagine you are a pet food manufacturer and you want to make food that contains 50% rice and 30% meat, but you still want to list the meat as the first ingredient. The easiest way is to use two varieties of rice and list them separately. For example, ingredients in the amounts of 25% brown rice, 25% white rice, and 30% meat can be listed as “meat, brown rice, white rice.” This method is genius, and it’s a legal way to fool you.
  • With real chicken or duck. In a world where we are fed with products of questionable quality and chemical contents, many consumers are prone to buying things that are advertised as real. This sounds logical, but the statement that pet food contains real chicken is just empty words with no meaning. If an ingredient list says the product contains chicken, it is already real chicken. The last time we checked, there was no chicken that was not real.
  • Organic ingredients. These are other words printed on pet food packages that are just words. The word “organic” on pet food does not mean the same as “organic” on human food. When you buy organic pasta, you can be certain that it comes from wheat grown with no pesticides, since certified organic farms are prohibited from using pesticides. Pet foods, however, fall only partially under human grade food certification, and therefore, it’s OK to print the word “organic” meaning only its dictionary definition—merely that the content relates to or is derived from living matter. Grain, in that sense, is organic, but clay is not. The situation isn’t all bad; there are pet food brands that genuinely use ingredients from certified organic farms, but you must check that the contents are on the ingredient list. Do not choose the product simply because the word “organic” is mentioned in the brand name. Even then, you should be aware that certification is a mess, and manufacturers themselves are allowed to interpret whether their organic ingredients are organic enough to be called “organic.”
  • Natural ingredients. “Natural” has an even vaguer meaning than “organic.” Natural, by definition, is everything that is readily found in nature, including clay. However, if that definition were used by pet food companies, they wouldn’t be able to call any processed food natural. That’s why most of us view as natural everything that isn’t produced in a lab. But we are not even going to start trying to draw a line between a kitchen and a lab, because it’s impossible. And in fact, not all lab-made substances are bad. For example, baking soda is a commonly used, totally safe, lab-made food ingredient. Yet baking soda itself is made from salt, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, all natural ingredients. So, is baking soda natural, then? That can be debated, but the bottom line is that if pet food packaging says “natural,” it actually tells you nothing useful.
  • Vets recommend. This statement is also likely to mislead consumers into believing that vets recommend only good things. There are close to 80 thousand veterinarians in the US, and it’s only logical that they are not all equally qualified at assessing pet food quality. And how many of them need to recommend a food before the phrase “vets recommend” can be printed on the package? We assume that you need at least two, because if only one vet recommended the food, you’d be obliged to print “a vet recommends.” When a fancy association or society of professionals recommends a pet food (or any other product, for that matter), it is wise to do a web search and find out more about that association, because it isn’t hard to found an association with just a few members.

The six things we’ve mentioned are only the most common tricks pet food manufacturers use to make their products look better than they actually are. There are others, but if you recognized the common traits behind the ones covered here, you will be able to spot others by yourself.

None of this means that you should steer clear of brands that use any of these techniques. In the saturated market of pet foods, it could actually be financial suicide for a manufacturer to advertise a medium-priced product as it really is. But at least you are now fully equipped to assess the real quality of commercial pet food by looking beyond the claims in ads.

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