We hear all sorts of things regarding what's in commercial pet food. Here's a brief explanation of some of the more common as well as a few unusual ingredients.
Meat vs. Meat Meal
- Meat is very high in moisture, consequently is often listed very near the top.
- Water and fat are removed from meat meals so they are lower in moisture, and may have more animal-source protein.
- Meat is defined by AAFCO as the “clean flesh of slaughtered mammals” and may include skin, fat, nerves, and sinew that normally accompany the flesh.
- Meat meal is defined by AAFCO as the “rendered product from mammal tissues” and excludes things like hair, horn, hide trimmings, stomach contents, added blood, and manure.
- Look for identifiable protein-source meal: turkey meal, salmon meal, etc.
These are parts deemed unfit for human consumption, and can be parts most people just don’t want to eat like feet, bones, and organs. Additionally the by-products, when used in pet and animal feed can come from 4-D (diseased, dying, disabled, and dead). It’s always best to avoid foods containing unidentified meat and meat meals.
How Meat Meal Is Made
Rendering is like stewing except that the product is over-cooked so the water is cooked away. The fat is then skimmed off and the what remains is baked. Meal, concentrated protein powder, is the end product. Higher quality meals are used in pet food, while lower quality is used as livestock feed. Although it’s always best to choose food with named species protein meal (chicken, beef, duck, etc.), higher quality food manufactures use higher quality meals.
Grains, Grain Meals, and Grain Parts
- Grain is an inexpensive ingredient that is often added to food as a binding agent, to boost protein content, and add calories.
- Avoid corn, soy, and wheat as these grains are often used as cheap filler, are difficult to digest, and can trigger allergic reactions.
- Cereal food fines, often found in lower quality foods, is the waste product from the processing of grain used for cereal.
- Brewers rice is broken bits of rice resulting from the milling process. It was originally used to brew alcohol.
Like many other grain meals, canola seeds are crushed to make oil and meals. According to the Canola Council of Canada canola meal is a lower quality,plant-based protein used as animal feed and is “palatable and non-toxic.” It can be found as an ingredient is some pet foods sold in supermarkets and big box stores.
Grain and Gluten
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and may be added to food to increase protein content.
- Common gluten-free grains and grain alternatives are buckwheat, sorghum, coconut flour, rice, millet, amaranth, and quinoa.
- Oats are inherently gluten-free, however they are commonly contaminated with gluten during the milling process.
- Although corn is gluten-free it's the most common genetically modified grain. Even organic corn is often genetically engineered.
- Spelt is an ancient wheat and as such contains a moderate amount of gluten.
Yeast: Brewer's or Nutritional
- Brewers yeast is deactivated yeast that is leftover from beer brewing. It's a good source of B vitamins, but lacks B-12.
- Nutritional yeast is also deactivated and cannot produce carbon dioxide. It's good source of B vitamins, including B-12.
Prebiotics: Chicory, Inulin, Oligosaccharides, Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
- Simply put, prebiotics are food for healthy intestinal flora, and a large population of good gut bacteria leaves little room for the bad variety.
- Prebiotics are sugars that are extracted from some fruits, vegetables, and grains, and are a source of soluble fiber with low calorie content.
- Benefits of adding prebiotics include improved nutrient absorption, healthy immune system, and optimal digestion.
- Product labels should contain the genus, and species, for example: Lactobacillus acidophilus. Also look for the colony forming units (CFS). It's the number of live microbes in a probiotic.
Thickeners and Stabilizers
- Carrageenan is a common food additive extracted from seaweed, and is used for its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. There is some controversy surrounding its safety. Some studies have shown that prolonged exposure to carrageenan causes inflammation.
- Cellulose gum is derived from the cell walls of plants, especially cotton seeds and wood pulp. It's used to add texture and volume to food.
- Guar gum is the ground endosperm of the guar bean, a crop common to India and Australia. It’s significantly more effective as a thickening agent than cornstarch, so a little goes a long way to make gravy texture smooth and consistent. Guar gum is a water-soluble fiber and in sufficient quantities is a laxative.
- Locust bean gum is ground, dehydrated carob seeds, and is used most often for its neutral flavor and creamy texture.
- Wheat gluten is the main protein component of wheat, and is used as a thickener, a binding agent, and to increase the protein amount in food.
- Xanthan gum produced by bacteria during fermentation. It's used as a thickening and stabilizing agent, and prevents separation over a wide temperature variation.
- Beet pulp is the fiber remaining from beets after the sugar has been extracted. It’s high in both fiber and protein, although it’s not a high quality protein.
- Pea fiber is an insoluble fiber with little protein content used as a source of dietary fiber. It appears to produce less gas than many other fibers. It’s increasingly being used in higher quality foods.
- Tomato pomace is what’s left after tomatoes are processed into juice, sauce, soup, ketchup, etc., which means it pretty much just the skin. It can be a controversial ingredient if it appears too high on the ingredient list, however it does contain a high amount of fiber.
- Animal or poultry digests are added for flavor enhancement. The raw material is treated with heat, enzymes, and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors. Since there is no control regarding the raw material sourcing, quality, or contamination levels, 4-D animals (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying) can be used.
Preservatives: Artificial vs. Natural
- Preservatives are commonly used to prevent food from spoiling.
- All animal protein meals and animal fats are treated with some type of preservative to prevent oxidation and rancidity.
- Artificial preservatives such as ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT will prolong the shelf life of a food. Some dogs are particularly sensitive to ethoxyquin and may develop liver problems from it. BHA and BHT, have been linked to cancer in lab animals.
- Natural preservatives include tocopherols (vitamin E), citric acid (vitamin C), and rosemary oil. Foods preserved with these substances are not as shelf-stable.
- Sea salt is the result of evaporation of sea water, and typically contains more minerals than plain table salt.
- Table salt is mined and processed until it’s white and fine. It can have up to 2% of anti-clumping and/or whitening additives.
- This ingredient can be either animal- or vegetable-derived.
- It’s added to food to retain moisture as well as preserve it.
- It’s also used an an emulsifier to prevent fats and water from separating in food.
- Glycerin is safe for dogs, cats, and humans to consume.
- Because it has the same caloric value as table sugar, it may be added to food as a sweetener.
- It’s commonly found in soft, semi-moist food and treats.
- This fatty acid is an antioxidant and emulsifier.
- It's contained in egg yolks and organ meats, but can be derived from soybeans.
- Supports healthy immune system.
- Used for stool odor control.
- Extract has anti-inflammatory properties, but is not intended for long-term use.
- In larger doses or in sensitive animals it can cause loose stools.
Clays: Bentonite and Montmorillonite
- These are naturally occurring mineral compounds known for expelling parasites, binding to toxins, and controlling diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Also a source for some minerals.
Chelated Minerals are easily passed through the digestive tract and absorbed into the blood.
Marigold aka Calendula (Flower, Extract, and Meal)
- Like spinach and kale, marigold flowers contain lutein, a carontenoid that supports eye health.
Fenugreek is a spice with medicinal properties and has been used for centuries by Ayuravedic practitioners and in Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to medical research fenugreek is an antioxidant, and since oxidation leads to inflammation, it's also an anti-inflammatory.
Kelp is good source of iodine, which support healthy thyroid function.
- These mollusks are found only in the waters around New Zealand.
- They are a superfood containing a variety of nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, and are an excellent source of glucosamine and chondroitin.