There is a lot of confusion as to what various terms associated with pet food mean. Some terms have legal definitions and some terms are just marketing concepts.
Let’s start with terms that have actual legal definitions.
Organic: There are two organic classifications – USDA Certified Organic and Organic. To be USDA Certified Organic, a food must contain 95% (by weight) of organic ingredients. To be Organic, a food must contain 70% (by weight) of organic ingredients. Please note that Organic is not a quality standard; there are high-quality and low-quality organic ingredients.
Natural: A Natural pet food cannot contain any artificial colors, flavors, or ingredients (other than vitamins and minerals). Again, there are high-quality and low-quality natural ingredients.
These are the only two terms that have a legal definition. Most other terms are just marketing concepts. Here are our definitions and opinions:
Holistic: Theoretically, this means that the food is formulated based on the philosophy that the various ingredients complement each other to improve the overall short-term and long-term health of the animal. The value of the whole is greater than the value of the individual parts. Today, it seems to mean the formula has fruits and vegetables (and none in enough quantities to have any efficacy).
Human Grade: This tries to convey the idea that the ingredients used in the pet food are the same as those in human foods. And the case can be made that very few grains are grown just for animals and that no chickens are raised for pet food. However, ingredients are in pet foods for a reason. In the best case, the meat in pet foods is what is left after everything that can reasonably be used for humans has removed from the carcass. In some cases, meats are used that are inappropriate for human food (for whatever reason) but still acceptable for use in pet foods. AAFCO is now advising that the term Human Grade can only be used on pet foods made in human food facilities. AAFCO believes the term, Human Grade, is misleading.
Super Premium, Premium, Economy: The easy definition of these terms is that Super Premium foods are better and more expensive than Premium foods and Premium foods are better and more expensive than Economy foods. In truth, there is no definition for any of these terms. Often we see what we feel are Premium foods in Super Premium bags. At GDM, we like to refer to “true Super Premium foods.” What do we mean by this? We mean foods that perform at a very high level. We mean that the consumer should be able to see a difference when feeding their animals a super premium food. Shiny coat. Small stool. Bright eyes. But most importantly – health. It is our opinion that animals fed Super Premium diets should not be making frequent visits to the veterinarian. Of course an annual visit for a checkup and immunizations; or if they have been injured in some way. We also believe that most food allergies are a result of a weakened immune system caused by poor nutrition. Very few animals on a Super Premium diet should suffer from allergies.
However, these terms are marketing concepts reflecting how the company wants to position the brand in the market. In general, a Super Premium food is expected to have a meat protein as the first ingredient. An Economy food will have a grain as the first ingredient. A Premium food could have either a meat protein or a grain as the first ingredient.
First Ingredient Meat: In recent years, it has become a requirement that a Super Premium food have a meat protein as the first ingredient. Why? Perceived quality. So, how are foods formulated to ensure the first ingredient is a meat protein? There are two methods that are generally employed: 1) use three or four grains; 2) use fresh meat. Ingredients must be listed by weight. Therefore, if we use three or four grains instead of one grain, the meat protein will be heavier than any one grain. On the other hand, fresh meat is 80% moisture and quite heavy. To produce a dry food, the moisture must all be removed but the meat is weighed while still fresh. Is there a nutritional reason to prefer the use of multiple grains over a single grain? None that we are aware of; although different grains do have different nutritional profiles.
This is really just another marketing “tool.” Does it make a difference to the animal? No.
Fresh Meat: There is a lot of confusion regarding the use of fresh meats in dry pet foods. Consumers (and others) believe that fresh meats must be better than meals. Fresh sounds better than meal. But, in order to extrude a fresh meat, the moisture must be removed and the fresh meat is essentially transformed into a meal. Meals come in many different quality levels. Yes, some meals can be very low quality but many meals are better nutritionally than fresh meats.
Grain Free: This is a nutritional philosophy that is becoming very prevalent. It is based on the concept that wolves do not eat grain and that dog nutrition should be based on the natural diet of their ancestors, wolves. There are a number of quality Grain-Free formulas available in the market. However, we also believe in evolution and recognize that dogs are different than wolves. Over the last many millennia, dogs have eaten whatever we humans have fed them. They seem to be doing just fine. In fact, dogs seem to be doing much better than wolves in terms of overall health and longevity. Should humans be eating primarily uncooked leaves and fruits like our ancestors the great apes?
In addition, recent studies are showing that Grain-Free formulas with more than 32% protein can be dangerous and can lead to kidney failure and digestive ailments.
No Corn, No Soy, No Wheat: Another marketing concept based on anecdotal evidence that these ingredients cause food allergies in dogs and cats. Again, we fall back to our opinion that most food allergies are a result of poor nutrition. A healthy animal will generally be able to tolerate these ingredients without difficulty. However, it is also true that most economy foods are made with these ingredients; animals eating economy foods will often have allergies due to poor nutrition. If economy foods were nutritionally equivalent to super premium foods, there would be no reason to purchase (or produce) super premium foods.
Therefore, one definition of Super Premium foods today is No Corn, No Soy, No Wheat. Companies are now formulating accordingly. Not necessarily to improve their foods but often to comply with market trends.
SUMMARY: There are many terms associated with pet foods intended to convey quality. Of all these terms, only two have a fixed meaning – organic and natural – and neither one of these actually ensures quality. Organic and natural ensure the types of ingredients used but not necessarily the quality of those ingredients. All the other terms associated with pet foods are marketing concepts. They attempt to define the quality of the pet food but there is just no guarantee.
In the end, the only way to determine the quality of pet food is to feed the animals.