Pet food ingredients

Understanding what the ingredients mean and how good they are for your pet.

Animal Protein

Dogs and cats are carnivores, and do best on a meat-based diet. The protein used in pet food comes from a variety of sources. When cattle, swine, chickens, lambs, or other animals are slaughtered, lean muscle tissue is trimmed away from the carcass for human consumption, along with the few organs that people like to eat, such as tongues and tripe.

However, about 50% of every food animal does not get used in human foods. Whatever remains of the carcass — heads, feet, bones, blood, intestines, lungs, spleens, livers, ligaments, fat trimmings, unborn babies, and other parts not generally consumed by humans — is used in pet food, animal feed, fertilizer, industrial lubricants, soap, rubber, and other products. These “other parts” are known as “by-products.” By-products are used in feed for poultry and livestock as well as in pet food.

The nutritional quality of by-products, meals, and digests can vary from batch to batch. James Morris and Quinton Rogers, of the University of California at Davis Veterinary School, assert that, “[pet food] ingredients are generally by-products of the meat, poultry and fishing industries, with the potential for a wide variation in nutrient composition. Claims of nutritional adequacy of pet foods based on the current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient allowances (‘profiles’) do not give assurances of nutritional adequacy and will not until ingredients are analyzed and bioavailability values are incorporated.”3

Meat or poultry “by-products” are very common in wet pet foods. Remember that “meat” refers to only cows, swine, sheep, and goats. Since sheep and goats are rare compared to the 37 million cows and 100 million hogs slaughtered for food every year, nearly all meat by-products come from cattle and pigs.

The better brands of pet food, such as many “super-premium,” “natural,” and “organic” varieties, do not use by-products. On the label, you’ll see one or more named meats among the first few ingredients, such as “turkey” or “lamb.” These meats are still mainly leftover scraps; in the case of poultry, bones are allowed, so “chicken” consists mainly of backs and frames—the spine and ribs, minus their expensive breast meat. The small amount of meat left on the bones is the meat in the pet food. Even with this less-attractive source, pet food marketers are very tricky when talking about meat, so this is explained further in the section on “Marketing Magic” below.

Meat meals, poultry meals, by-product meals, and meat-and-bone meal are common ingredients in dry pet foods. The term “meal” means that these materials are not used fresh, but have been rendered. While there are chicken, turkey, and poultry by-product meals there is no equivalent term for mammal “meat by-product meal” — it is called “meat-and-bone-meal.” It may also be referred to by species, such as “beef-and-bone-meal” or “pork-and-bone-meal.”

What is rendering? As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, to render is “to process as for industrial use: to render livestock carcasses and to extract oil from fat, blubber, etc., by melting.” In other words, raw materials are dumped into large vat and boiled for several hours. Rendering separates fat, removes water, and kills bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms. However, the high temperatures used (270°F/130°C) can alter or destroy natural enzymes and proteins found in the raw ingredients.

Because of persistent rumors that rendered by-products contain dead dogs and cats, the FDA conducted a study looking for pentobarbital, the most common euthanasia drug, in pet foods. They found it. Ingredients that were most commonly associated with the presence of pentobarbital were meat-and-bone-meal and animal fat. However, they also used very sensitive tests to look for canine and feline DNA, which were not found. Industry insiders admit that rendered pets and roadkill were used in pet food some years ago. Although there are still no laws or regulations against it, the practice is uncommon today, and pet food companies universally deny that their products contain any such materials. However, so-called “4D” animals (dead, dying, diseased, disabled) were only recently banned for human consumption and are still legitimate ingredients for pet food.

Vegetable Protein

The amount of grain and vegetable products used in pet food has risen dramatically over time. Plant products now replace a considerable proportion of the meat that was used in the earliest commercial pet foods. This has led to severe nutritional deficiencies that have been corrected along the way, although many animals died before science caught up.

Most dry foods contain a large amount of cereal grain or starchy vegetables to provide texture. These high-carbohydrate plant products also provide a cheap source of “energy” — the rest of us call it “calories.” Gluten meals are high-protein extracts from which most of the carbohydrate has been removed. They are often used to boost protein percentages without expensive animal-source ingredients. Corn gluten meal is the most commonly used for this purpose. Wheat gluten is also used to create shapes like cuts, bites, chunks, shreds, flakes, and slices, and as a thickener for gravy. In most cases, foods containing vegetable proteins are among the poorer quality foods.

A recent fad, “low-carb” pet food, has some companies steering away from grains, and using potatoes, green peas, and other starchy vegetables as a substitute. Except for animals that are allergic to grains, dry low-carb diets offer no particular advantage to pets. They also tend to be very high in fat and, if fed free-choice, will result in weight gain. Canned versions are suitable for prevention and treatment of feline diabetes, and as part of a weight loss program, as well as for maintenance.

Animal and Poultry Fat

There’s a unique, pungent odor to a new bag of dry pet food — what is the source of that smell? It is most often rendered animal fat, or vegetable fats and oils deemed inedible for humans. For example, used restaurant grease was rendered and routed to pet foods for several years, but a more lucrative market is now in biodiesel fuel production.

These fats are sprayed directly onto extruded kibbles and pellets to make an otherwise bland or distasteful product palatable. The fat also acts as a binding agent to which manufacturers add other flavor enhancers such as “animal digests” made from processed by-products. Pet food scientists have discovered that animals love the taste of these sprayed fats. Manufacturers are masters at getting a dog or a cat to eat something she would normally turn up her nose at.

What Happened to the Nutrients?

Cooking and other processing of meat and by-products used in pet food can greatly diminish their nutritional value, although cooking increases the digestibility of cereal grains and starchy vegetables.

To make pet food nutritious, pet food manufacturers must “fortify” it with vitamins and minerals. Why? Because the ingredients they are using are not wholesome, their quality may be extremely variable, and the harsh manufacturing practices destroy many of the nutrients the food had to begin with.

Proteins are especially vulnerable to heat, and become damaged, or “denatured,” when cooked. Because dry foods ingredients are cooked twice — first during rendering and again in the extruder — problems are much more common than with canned or homemade foods. Altered proteins may contribute to food intolerances, food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Additives in Processed Pet Foods

Many chemicals are added to commercial pet foods to improve the taste, stability, characteristics, or appearance of the food. Additives provide no nutritional value. Additives include emulsifiers to prevent water and fat from separating, antioxidants to prevent fat from turning rancid, and artificial colors and flavors to make the product more attractive to consumers and more palatable to their companion animals.

A wide variety of additives are allowed in animal feed and pet food, not counting vitamins and minerals. Not all of them are actually used in pet food. Additives can be specifically approved, or they can fall into the category of “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).

  • Anticaking agents
  • Antigelling agents
  • Antimicrobial agents
  • Antioxidants
  • Color additives
  • Condiments
  • Curing agents
  • Drying agents
  • Emulsifiers
  • Essential oils
  • Flavor enhancers
  • Flavoring agents
  • Grinding agents
  • Humectants
  • Leavening agents
  • Lubricants
  • Palatants
  • Pelleting agents and binders
  • Petroleum derivatives
  • pH control agents
  • Preservatives
  • Seasonings
  • Spices
  • Stabilizers
  • Sweeteners
  • Texturizers
  • Thickeners

Chemical vs. Natural Preservatives

All commercial pet foods must be preserved so they stay fresh and appealing to our animal companions. Canning is itself a preserving process, so canned foods need little or no additional help. Some preservatives are added to ingredients or raw materials by the suppliers, and others may be added by the manufacturer. The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance, requires fish meal to be heavily preserved with ethoxyquin or equivalent antioxidant. Evidently, spoiling fish meal creates such intense heat that ship explosions and fires resulted.

Because manufacturers need to ensure that dry foods have a long shelf life (typically 12 months) to remain edible through shipping and storage, fats used in pet foods are preserved with either synthetic or “natural” preservatives. Synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze), and ethoxyquin. For these antioxidants, there is little information documenting their toxicity, safety, interactions, or chronic use in pet foods that may be eaten every day for the life of the animal. Propylene glycol was banned in cat food because it causes anemia in cats, but it is still allowed in dog food.

Potentially cancer-causing agents such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin are permitted at relatively low levels. The use of these chemicals in pet foods has not been thoroughly studied, and long term build-up of these agents may ultimately be harmful. Due to questionable data in the original study on its safety, ethoxyquin’s manufacturer, Monsanto, was required to perform a new, more rigorous study. This was completed in 1996. Even though Monsanto found no significant toxicity associated with its own product, in July 1997 the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine requested that manufacturers voluntarily reduce the maximum level for ethoxyquin by half, to 75 parts per million. While some pet food critics and veterinarians believe that ethoxyquin is a major cause of disease, skin problems, and infertility in dogs, others claim it is the safest, strongest, most stable preservative available for pet food. Ethoxyquin is approved for use in human food for preserving spices, such as cayenne and chili powder, at a level of 100 ppm — but it would be very difficult for even the most hard-core spice lover to consume as much chili powder every day as a dog would eat dry food. Ethoxyquin has never been tested for safety in cats. Despite this, it is commonly used in veterinary diets for both cats and dogs.

Many pet food makers have responded to consumer concern, and are now using “natural” preservatives such as Vitamin C (ascorbate), Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), and oils of rosemary, clove, or other spices, to preserve the fats in their products. The shelf life is shorter, however — only about 6 months.

Individual ingredients, such as fish meal, may have preservatives added before they reach the pet food manufacturer. Federal law requires fat preservatives to be disclosed on the label; however, pet food companies do not always comply with this law.

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