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Vet addresses pet nutrition myths in university lecture series

Tufts University's most-recent lecture in its weekly series featured Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, presenting and discussing her research on companion animal nutrition.

The lecture, part of the "A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research" series, focused on exposing pet nutrition myths and educating pet owners on how to select an optimal diet for their pet.

In her lecture, Freeman emphasized that, contrary to the beliefs of some, the petfood industry is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which establishes the petfood regulations that set standards for individual states and nutrient profiles for petfood.

"The key is that a petfood label is an advertisement as well, and it has to appeal to us as consumers," Freeman said. "Unfortunately, when I talk to owners, what they base their decision on is the advertisement, not the legal part."

Freeman polled her audience during the lecture about the most important information on the petfood label. While the majority of the audience said that the petfood ingredients list was most important, Freeman said this is not true.

"The … most important thing is the manufacturer," she said. According to her, a petfood manufacturer must employ at least one full−time, qualified nutritionist, a research and development department, self−operated plants and internal quality control standards.

"You would be shocked at how many of these pet food companies do not have a nutritionist," Freeman said. "I also don't want them to be spending all of their money on marketing. I want research and development [so they] continue to enhance their own foods, to enhance our knowledge collectively about nutrition."

The second−most important fact on the petfood label, Freeman said, is the nutritional adequacy statement, which reveals three key pieces of information following Association of American Feed Control Officials guidelines: whether or not the petfood is complete and balanced, how the company knows that it is complete and balanced, and the animal's intended life stage of the food.

"If you're feeding this to your pet, you want it to meet all the nutrient needs for that animal," Freeman said. "The best way to decide that is with feeding trials. AAFCO has regulations, and they make sure that animals fed these foods actually stay healthy on these foods. And finally, the intended lifestage — who it's marketed for can be really different from who it meets the requirements for. That one little statement tells you a tremendous amount of information."

Freeman said the ingredient list is important because some petfood manufacturers include ingredients that are beneficial to humans, who are purchasing the food, but are not necessarily beneficial to the animal consuming it. She gave an example in which a petfood manufacturer listed flaxseed as an ingredient in cat food, which is metabolizable in humans, but not in cats.

"They used it for us, because we see flaxseed and think it's great. That is marketing to us," Freeman said. "People get really deceived by the ingredient list. But that's how I use it — to look for red flags that say they don't know very much."

Freeman concluded the lecture by addressing several other pet nutrition myths. She said that animal by-products are not necessarily poor-quality meats and that terms like "human-grade," "premium" and "holistic" are also used as marketing terms but are not defined by AAFCO, like the term "natural" is.

"It's a really important issue because there is so much confusion out there," Freeman said. "[Pet owners] should find out the basics, talk to their veterinarian and be careful about what they read on the Internet. There's good and bad information, and it's often really difficult to discern which is which."

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