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What Should I Look for on a Pet Food Label?

February 3, 2011

What Should You Care About on a Pet Food Label?

Fruits and veggies?  Maybe.  Does your cat really care?  No!  Your dog might care.

Whole meat?  Maybe.  (See VirtuaVet’s discussion about how food companies can mislead with “whole meat.”)

Chicken or Poultry By-Product meals? Yes.  They are disgusting.  Have you been to a meat-packing facility?  Doc Truli has!

Artificial Colors, Dyes, or Preservatives? Yes.  They are poisonous.  Avoid when possible.

Corn, wheat, or soy? Maybe.  (See VirtuaVet’s discussion about Food Allergies.)

Cold Formed Nutrients and Antioxidants? Yes.  This is complex.  We’ll get into this next week.

AAFCO?  What?

American Association of Feed Control Officials

Nutritional Guidelines are a Best Approximation Based on Available Evidence

How do we know what nutrients a pet needs?  Well, honestly, we don’t know, exactly.  The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is tasked with the responsibility of designating the necessary nutrients for different species of animals in human care.  The guidelines take years to determine and further years to change or adjust as new research information becomes available.

We Need Guidelines to Prevent Disease

The nutritional guidelines help keep animals safe from malnutrition and toxicity.  While we can cook different meals every night, often from different sources, even a variety of countries, many pets eat the food we provide from the can and the bag.  If something is missing, or in excess, the mistake will be compounded every day through repeated feeding.  If you think switching and varying foods from day to day and bag to bag will help, you underestimate how homogenous the US pet food industry really is in the grand scheme of things.

Taurine Deficiency in Cats Caused Cardiac Sudden Death and Blindness

Only 30 years ago, during the 1970’s, cats suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy and sudden blindness at upsetting rates.  Scientists labored to understand why.  Do you know what they found?  Cats cannot make the amino acid taurine.  Humans make taurine inside the body.  Dogs make taurine in the body.  Not cats.  Taurine is abundant in meat, but many of the pet foods were made with inferior protein from by-products and lacked the taurine cats needed to stay healthy.  Once taurine began being added to the cat food, the epidemic waned.

AAFCO Statements and What They Mean

Inferior foods do not even contain an AAFCO statement.  They do not acknowledge AAFCO at all.  Avoid these foods.

There are two basic AAFCO statements you will see on a pet food if the company cares about impressing you and your veterinarian.

  1. This food is formulated to meet AAFCO standards.
  2. This food meets AAFCO standards as fed, or “on an as fed basis.”

What is the Difference Between “as fed” and “formulated to meet?”

“Formulated to meet the AAFCO standards” means the diet was designed using the AAFO standards like a recipe in a cookbook.  “As fed” means the diet was designed and then fed to real animals for at least 6 months to prove the animals maintained their weight and health while they at the diet.  Obviously, the “as fed” diets should cost more than the “formulated diets” because of the investment in feeding trials and follow-up.

Why is “as fed” Better?

You will have to go on a meandering mind adventure through theories to get to the answer with Doc Truli!

Drug Mixes

First, let’s imagine a pharmaceutical (“drug”) with 2 drugs ingredients.  Like a a sleep medicine with a painkiller.  Do you think the Food and Drug Administration just lets the pharmaceutical company just stick the 2 drugs into the same pill and then sell it on the open market? No! Why not?  The big corporations want to make money, right? It would be cheaper and easier,right? Well, the reason why not is mixing two drugs together can have unintended effects.  Maybe they cancel each other.  Maybe they enhance each other.  Maybe they kill people.  You just do  not know unless you study the specific mix in real people, not just in a laboratory.

Herbal Mixes

Now imagine an herbal supplement made by a reputable company.  Do you take combination products?  Like a 5-herbal formula to fight colds?  Do you know if the formula works?  Not sure?  Why?  For one, there’s the growing conditions for the natural ingredients.  Are the herbs organic?  Were they picked at the right times and with the right technique to keep them potent for the effect you need?  Were they stored and handled correctly?  Were they processed and bottled under ideal conditions for potency?  Then, do you know those ingredients don’t enhance, cancel, or otherwise alter each other?  No, you don’t.  But the government does not tightly regulate these supplements, so you spend your money on them anyway and hope for the best.  Many of them work. Many do not.  Sometimes you can feel the difference.

Pet Food Combining

Now let’s think about pet food.  The ingredients are grown somewhere, usually fields in the MidWest.  They are shipped, stored, cured, processed, bagged, and distributed by the ton.  One swine feed processing plant Doc Truli visited in North Carolina build a twelve-ton mixer.  Twelve tons of feed mixed every 4 minutes.  We’re talking big business.  We’re talking trainloads of ingredients.

Do you want the food that is mixed by a recipe and theory and marketing glitz?  Or do you also want a food that has been fed to animals and proven to keep them healthy?  If you have to feel the difference, how can your cat or dog communicate the effects of good food versus regular food?

Partly you can look and see how your pet is doing.  Is the fur nice?  Are the muscles rippling.  Basically, is your pet the picture of health?  How long do you want to wait for the food to work until you decide if it was any good or not?  Why are you experimenting on your own pet any more than necessarily?

“But, Doc Truli,” you say, if you have been reading with your mind working,” These diets have been on the market for years.  Lots of animals eat them and that’s the test of the food, isn’t it?”

Good thinking!  But, did you know that the “as fed” diets have to be retested each time they change something?  The “formulated to meet” diets do not uphold those standards.  The majority of the new “natural” companies are operating like celebrity chefs; they are cooking up whatever they think might be good.  If you agree with them, then pay the premium price.

Follow the best scientific guidelines of veterinary nutritionists. Feed diets that are AAFCO certified “as fed” or cook for your pet with the health and diversity you grant yourself. That’s the best guidelines we have in 2011.


American Association of Feed Control Officials, Inc.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol permalink
    February 5, 2011 5:15 pm

    I looked at a bunch of pet food labels this week and not one of them said “as fed”, they all said “formulated.” I checked a few of the natural pet foods and a few of the large company pet foods (like Friskies). Can you tell us the names of a few brands that say “as fed?” I did notice that the brand I buy lists taurine as the last ingredient, while many of the others list taurine as one of the first ingredients, so I’m a little worried about that.

    • February 6, 2011 10:31 am

      Brands like, but not limited to Science Diet, Royal Canin, Eukanuba, and Purina Prescription diets are “as fed.” It’s one reason they cost more. Most supermarket brands, organic bands, “natural” brands (BTW-did you know there is no US legal definition of the term “natural?” So technically, the company can define it for themselves.), and smaller companies do not have the resources to perform “as fed” trials. They may have very good, high quality food. The point is, you cannot judge their quality by the label.

      Regarding taurine: you will even find this ingredient missing from some of the organic, natural and “whole meat” cat foods. Do not panic! Taurine comes from meat. A cat food made primarily of real meat does not need added taurine to be nutritious for cats. The foods in the 70’s lacked taurine because they were made from cheap, often by-product quality ingredients that did not contain enough naturally-occurring taurine.

  2. Mindy permalink
    February 4, 2011 6:47 pm

    I checked the cat food I feed my girls and it says “formulated to meet” rather than “as fed.” At first I kind of freaked out, but in light of their stable IBD and what you and my vet have said, I’m thinking I’m probably better to just leave their food alone and not change it.

    • February 4, 2011 6:50 pm

      I usually say, “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it.” This is a relative thing, right? Everything is better than something else or worse than something else. In Chinese medicine, every attribute is yin or yan, compared to something else. If your kitties are healthy and happy and there is no compelling reason to change their food, then don’t change!

      • Mindy permalink
        February 7, 2011 1:01 am

        I just noticed what you said in your response to Carol. The company that makes my cats’ food is smaller, so that might explain why it is “formulated to meet” rather than “as fed.” In any case, my girls are doing very well on it in combination with 1/8 of a metronitozole tablet twice a week, so I’m happy.

  3. February 3, 2011 9:46 pm

    Will you be discussing raw feeding as part of this series?

    That is what I do (mostly — have had to tweak it a bit). Overall, it’s going well, but where it wasn’t, that’s where the tweaking came in.

    But I still have questions, and it’s extremely hard to find unbiased information. (Everyone seems to have an agenda.) Thank you.

    • February 4, 2011 6:53 pm

      Hi Sharon,
      I probably will not be discussing raw feeding from an expert point of view because I am not expert at it (I’ll bet you know more than I do!)
      If you would like to discuss raw diet issues and information, I could start a page for raw diet discussions, and we could use the comments as a forum and see who joins us!
      What do you think?
      -Doc Truli


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