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Dishing on Pet Food

Melissa Brookshire, DVM, has years of expertise in consumer relations issues impacting the pet food industry. Founder of North River Enterprises, Brookshire and her veterinary team provide customized consumer support solutions. She writes on timely industry topics impacting consumer relations.

Pet Food Ingredients

Pet food ingredients: toxic minerals, natural chemicals?

July 9, 2015

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”—Paracelsus, 1493-1541.

This quote from hundreds of years ago rings true today.

How many people do you see carrying water bottles with them everywhere they go, working to get the recommended amount of water into their bodies every day? But did you know that water is poison? No, I am not talking about tainted water supplies, but excess consumption of this life-giving substance. It is possible to consume too much water, dropping the sodium level within the body to a level that it is potentially life threatening. We do not hear anyone clamoring for us to stop drinking water because of this risk, but we often hear the call to eliminate “dangerous” or “harmful” ingredients from pet foods.

There is an inordinate amount of fear about ingredients found in pet foods today. This fear comes from a simple lack of understanding of science. Science is a part of our natural world. Chemicals are everywhere, naturally occurring or man-made. Sometimes naturally occurring chemicals are more toxic than those created by man. One of the most lethal chemicals in the world is a toxin produced by bacteria. Care to guess which one? Botulinum toxin—the same chemical used in Botox, injected into the bodies of women and men around the world for the primary purpose of having smoother, younger looking skin. Again, it’s all about the dose.

Propylene glycol, a substance found in many dog treats and even some dog foods, was recently in the news because it was said to be antifreeze, a highly toxic substance to pets. Unfortunately, the difference between ethylene glycol (used in antifreeze) and propylene glycol was not discussed until after the news went viral. And propylene glycol is a safe ingredient when found in dog foods at an appropriate inclusion level. An interesting point to make is that propylene glycol is not allowed in cat foods or cat treats because it is toxic to cats, another example of why we cannot transfer health information from humans to pets or even from dogs to cats.

Many pet foods make claims that their food is natural with added vitamins and minerals. The use of “natural” on the packaging is highly regulated, and reviewed as part of the registration process required to sell pet foods in individual states. Many vitamins and minerals are synthetically created, which is why they fall outside of the definition of “natural.” This does not mean that these ingredients are toxic, although they could be if added in excess (refer back to the quote from Paracelsus). Equally dangerous is a deficiency of any essential vitamin or mineral. To manufacture a diet that is complete and balanced, serving as the sole source of nutrition on a daily basis for a pet, requires the addition of these essential nutrients.

Copper is an essential mineral nutrient that also recently made headlines. Copper must be included in dog foods complete and balanced for all lifestages at a minimum of 7.3 mg/kg on a dry matter basis. The maximum amount allowed is 250 mg/kg on a dry matter basis. For cat foods, the minimum amount is 15 mg/kg on a dry matter basis and there is not a maximum stated. Pet foods are required to be manufactured to meet these nutritional levels unless the food has undergone an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trial, proving that it is complete and balanced and safe to feed with a level of copper that falls outside the recommended range.

Copper storage disease is a real problem in some dogs, but not in most. Feeding dogs affected by copper storage disease a diet that is complete and balanced for normal healthy dogs certainly may not be appropriate, but it is also not appropriate to consider that dog foods should be made without adequate levels of this essential nutrient on the off chance that a dog with undiagnosed copper storage disease may consume them. Creating deficiencies in a large group of dogs to protect the health of a few is not a reasonable approach.

Natural preservatives used in pet foods can be very confusing when the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) and the AAFCO Official Publication (OP) are reviewed. Tocopherols, naturally occurring vitamin E compounds, are widely used as natural preservatives in pet foods and various pet food ingredients. However, they are listed as a “chemical preservative” in the OP. Why the discrepancy here? Stepping back to the world of science, we have to consider the difference between “organic chemicals” and “synthetic chemicals.” Organic chemicals occur in nature and are natural, despite the word chemical. This is exactly the case with tocopherols.

While the pet food industry might consider these concerns to be without merit, consumers do not. Catering to every whim of the consumer is certainly not possible, but bringing science back into the conversation when discussing common pet food ingredients is critical to success. As consumers drive trends that lead to the use of more unusual and unique ingredients, more questions will arise that need to be answered.

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