You want to feed your furry friend the best natural dog food to ensure a long life full of fun times together. With so many factors that need to be considered, you’ll need to first understand that not all brands are created equal, and that “natural” may not be that natural after all!
With so many options of dog food available from raw, dehydrated, and natural to fresh and gently air-dried, there is tons of evidence that our furry best friends benefit from a high-quality whole food diet with plenty of veggies and fruits.
You can find different dog foods in a range of formulas from wet food, dry food, freeze and air-dried recipes to raw food diets. But the term “natural’ is often thrown around by dog food manufacturers without it really meaning anything. If you’re thinking about opting for a truly natural dog food, you’ll need to do your homework carefully. Complete and balanced dog food formulas may be advertised as natural, but some may be far from reaching the ranks of human-grade cuisine.
What Does “All Natural” Mean When It Comes to Dog Food?
Consumers today want transparency in all aspects of their dog food. We want to feed all-natural formulas, to explore and trust each brand’s ingredient list, and to stay away from poor quality ingredients like meat by-products, rendered fat, propylene glycol (PG), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). That might seem like a mouthful, but in simple terms, your best friend should have real food that they love and that is healthy for them, too! We also want to keep our dog free of pain, inflammation, fatigue, infections, and disease.
So what happens when you opt for an “all natural” dog food? Are you really going to get the freshest ingredients in their bowls? Ultimately, it comes down to picking a dog food that is human-grade, rather than simply “all natural”. This means that the food is high-quality, to the point where you could have a bowl with them—although we don’t recommend a taste test!
The Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a commercial enterprise that tries to regulate the quality and safety of your furry friends' food, but has no regulatory power. It puts together model laws and regulations, then member states are encouraged to adopt these laws. By adopting these models, agencies have the power to enforce the AAFCO’s suggested laws and regulations.
That said, AAFCO does not have the power on its own to enforce any of the models that it produces. It also has no regulatory authority, no inspectors, and no laboratories. If there are any inspections of a dog food plant, it’s done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And none of the state reps at AAFCO actually test the raw ingredients in dog food.
According to Foods Pets Die For, AAFCO only tests for guaranteed analysis and determines product registration in dog foods and commercial animal feeds. They check nutritive values for the product, not the ingredients themselves.
We have been talking about the word ‘natural’ for a bit now, we know. To explain why we heep using quotation marks, take a look at AAFCO’s definition of natural: “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”
That definition is a mouthful, and not necessarily a healthy one! In simpler terms, “natural” is simply a lack of chemical and toxic ingredients… not exactly what we think of when we think natural.
The FDA has not yet defined “natural” in relation to dog food labeling. Instead, it relies on the federal requirement that labeling must not be false or misleading.
Breakdown of the Definition
- There are no real requirements that need to be met for ingredients to be “natural,” so not all “natural” ingredients are automatically better than artificially produced ingredients
- Natural is a liberal term that includes more ingredients than it excludes—most dog food ingredients are derived from “plant, animal or mined sources,” but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy or high quality.
- A feed ingredient can be subject to a number of commonly-used processes during the manufacturing process and still be deemed natural.
- A feed or feed ingredient can contain trace amounts of chemically synthetic compounds and still be considered natural.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all dog food together with the U.S Department of Agriculture. Yet, it’s the Association of American Feed Controls (AAFCO) that provides the guidelines from manufacturing, selling, and labeling all dog foods to ensure your pup's safety.
The AAFCO also states what levels of nutrients need to be used for each lifestage. The FDA ensures that the ingredients used in dog food are safe, and have an appropriate function in dog food. Many of the ingredients such as meat, poultry and grains are considered safe and do not require pre-market approval. Together they work in the front line to support a healthier life for your pup!
With that said, dog food recipes keep changing according to new scientific research and costs. We’re advised to focus on formulas with ingredients that qualify as “complete and balanced” that meet the AAFCO’s regulations regarding nutrient profiles. Truth About Petfood adds that under the One Health Initiative, the FDA pushed a new, controversial definition of adulteration through AAFCO:
“If it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to human or animal health; but in case the substance is not an added substance, such commercial feed shall not be considered adulterated under this subsection if the quantity of such substance in such commercial feed does not ordinarily render it injurious to human or animal health.”
Truth About Pet Food explains that in 2020 ”what we asked AAFCO for was animal ingredients (such as chicken) to be specific to what is included in that ingredient. As an example – the current definition of chicken can be chicken meat, or chicken bones, or chicken skin, or chicken internal organs or a combination of one or more, and condemned or USDA inspected and passed varieties of each type of chicken part. We submitted ingredient definitions that would not only tell the consumer what parts of the chicken are included in your pet’s food – but also the quality of the chicken (inspected and passed or condemned). So from today, AAFCO has agreed to look into this issue. It will probably take years for any changes to be implemented, but thanks to AAFCO we now have a beginning to the discussion. This is a great start.”
With perfection still years away, a responsible pup parent needs to check dog food labels and do some digging when picking what foods to give your furry best friend.
The Pet Food Institute
The Pet Food Institute (PFI) represents commercial pet food manufacturers in Canada and the US. The PFI adds that it’s the pet food industry’s public and media relations resource, representative before the U.S Congress, and state and federal agencies. It organizes seminars, educational programs, research, and also helps with liaisons with other private organizations.
What to Look for?
We all want to assume that the food we buy for our furry friends is safe and government-regulated. Although this is usually the case, it is best to know what to look for when shopping. When reading dog food labels, look for:
- Fresh Meat
- Vegetables and Fruit
- No Controversial Ingredients
- No Added Hormones and Steroids
- No Unnamed Meat Sources
- Right Ratio of Macronutrients
- By-Products in the Form of Organ Meats
- Not Overly Processed
- Affordability and Variety
Proteins like cooked meat, chicken, lamb, turkey, venison or fish will provide the amino acids that all dogs need, while adding a yummy taste pups will crave! Quinoa is also a good source of protein, and it includes the amino acid lysine, unlike most grains. Quinoa offers all the essential amino acids that dogs need to keep their energy levels high at playtime.
The inclusion of regular human-grade ingredients for dogs has also diminished the occurrence of bloat in dogs. Studies from Tufts University show that feeding dry food alone or feeding one single meal of dry food containing fat in the first four ingredients had a 170% higher risk of developing bloat.
Another study at Purdue University added that feeding table foods to large and giant dog breeds was linked to a 59% decreased risk of developing bloat. Today, many dogs on a homemade diet have lived a longer and healthier life.
In fact, taking a holistic approach to dog care by feeding a high-quality homemade dog food with top-notch ingredients should be high on every dog parent’s list. We know that your dog is part of your family, so make sure to give them foods that avoid bloat will keep their tails wagging for years to come.
Why Do Big Brands Use the Term?
According to the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, “the vast majority of the text and all of the images on any pet food packaging is advertising. It’s aimed at appealing to you, the dog parent. Sometimes, something that attracts you is good for your furry BFF, but many times, it’s not. Current regulations do not require pet food companies to provide much factual information on their labels. They want to make the food sound delicious and high quality to get your attention. Oh yeah, and they need to make a profit. Always remember when you’re in the pet food aisle: Just because the label says it's healthy, doesn’t mean it really is healthy.”
The Clinical Nutrition Team explains that there are many dog food companies that are great, and just because a company is big does not mean it has substandard dog food or ingredients:
“There are companies that produce foods of fantastic quality and those that cut corners or spend most of their money on marketing. Just because a pet food company is large doesn’t mean it’s using substandard ingredients, or tricking people into buying too much food. And just because a company is small, or ‘artisanal,’ or ‘makes its food with love,’ doesn’t mean it necessarily manufactures more wholesome dog food.”
They also explain that looking at the ingredients list on a dog food package may not be enough: “It’s not the right approach when deciding upon a pet food. Even so, most publications and websites that offer ratings of specific pet foods base their recommendations heavily, or entirely, on the ingredient list. Our main use for the ingredient list is to look for anything that should not be fed to your pup, like ingredients that are toxic or ingredients that are used only for marketing purposes and not for their nutritional value.”
Although numerous high-quality dog food brands use human-grade ingredients, including veggies, fruits and oils that are rich in fatty acids and beneficial for brain health, many cheap commercial dog food brands may instead opt for cheap and easy-to-make products with the ‘natural’ label slapped on the package. Companies continue to use these products in their dog food:
- By-Product Meals
- China Sourced Ingredients
- Rendered Material
- Deceptive Marketing Strategies
Dog parents need to be aware of marketing terms like “all-natural” and “low-fat.” A study from the University of Houston concluded that consumers viewed products that had health-related euphemisms as “healthier” compared to those without them. The same would apply to all dog foods. Health-related words tend to prime consumers to look at products with an influenced bias.
The marketing study adds that “food marketers say there are nutritional labels, so people can find out what’s healthy and what’s not.”
“The findings showed that many consumers struggle to pick out what is healthy even when it might seem as simple as picking between fresh salmon and spam! Approximately 20 percent of consumers picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon,” said Northup via Valenti School of Communication at UH.
Remember, the FDA still has not defined “natural” when it comes down to dog food labeling. So as caring dog parents, we need to rely on the AAFCO’s definition, which calls for food that is solely derived from plant, animal or mined sources, that have not been exposed to a chemically synthetic process, and that does not contain additives. That means that all dog food products that have not-so-great preservatives like BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) are not actually “natural” dog foods.
This might seem like a lot to digest, but you can work with a holistic veterinarian who specializes in food therapy and “natural” dog foods to determine which foods will benefit your furry best friend the most. You can see how food can affect a dog’s behavior and health, and how “natural” foods or a natural dog food formula can help to rebalance your dog’s emotional and mental health as well.
Using food therapy or a high-quality dog food like veterinary formulated and gently air-dried dog food from Sundays For Dogs, that is formulated to meet AAFCO’s nutrient profiles with both the formulation, and the analysis of the finished product, you’ll be feeding your pooch a healthy and well-balanced “natural” diet, and you’ll be nurturing with the real ingredients via natural nutrition!
1. Martin, Ann, Food Pets Die for (2008), pg.51