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Adventures in Pet Food

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things pet food, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.
Pet Food Ingredients / Pet Food Market Trends

Online pet food reviews: where’s the science?

June 30, 2015

Websites offering reviews of commercial pet foods abound, from ones devoted to that purpose to general consumer review sites that sometimes rate pet food. While many of the sites follow some sort of objective criteria or standards, most, if not all, seem to lack scientific knowledge as the basis for their ratings—the science behind dogs’ and cats’ nutrition needs.

Or, as many companion animal nutritionists would say, they lack understanding of nutrients vs. ingredients. “Certainly ingredients matter, particularly when you look at the quality and specific amino acid make-up of the protein, but I’m actually concerned that the pendulum has swung too far toward ingredients and away from nutrients in some owner’s minds,” said Craig Webb, PhD, associate professor and head of the small animal medicine section at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

I would go one step farther: most pet owners don’t truly understand pets’ nutrient needs, nor do most reviewers on these pet food rating sites. For that matter, neither do most marketers promoting pet food brands, and when it comes to marketing vs. science on a pet food label, guess which side usually wins?

“Many pet foods today are promoted for the ingredients they do or do not contain rather than their nutritional performance, disingenuously playing off of the consumers’ perception about the ingredients rather than their real nutritional value,” wrote Greg Aldrich, PhD, research associate professor and pet food program coordinator at Kansas State University, and president of Pet Food Technology & Ingredients.

This is probably true not only for pet food but also often for human food. After all, most consumers now scrutinize ingredient labels on their own food, too, while, as Webb pointed out: “We survive space travel using packets of liquefied nutrition that doesn’t resemble any of the ingredients I put on the dinner table!”

Webb was quoted on a ratings site called, aptly, Reviews.com, which has reviewed categories ranging from 4G mobile broadband to auto insurance to electric toothbrushes to online degrees to yoga mats. Somehow, in the middle of all that, their latest project focused on dog food. “1400 hours of research and over 20 experts to find the truth about dog food,” the website touts, “even if it takes reviewing 2,219 formulations.”

OK, I’ll give them points for thoroughness. When you start looking at their “experts,” however, questions arise. Yes, it includes people known to have strong backgrounds in animal science and pet nutrition, such as Webb and George Fahey, PhD, of the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences (who essentially started the companion animal nutrition program there). But it also includes numerous behavior experts, who may indeed have extensive knowledge in dog behavior and training but not necessarily in nutrition.

It also includes several veterinarians, who of course have in-depth knowledge of and training in animal science, yet that doesn’t automatically extend to companion animal nutrition. I have talked with quite a few veterinarians who say that they had a grand total of one course on nutrition in veterinary school; and while many veterinarians have the opportunity or initiative to obtain additional learning and knowledge in nutrition beyond that, arguably just as many don’t.

What really hurts the credibility of the veterinarians quoted on Reviews.com is the title given for one, Marc Abraham: “TV Vet.” Seriously? (Apparently he’s a vet based in the UK who “regularly appears on UK television.” He may be an excellent veterinarian, but is that any way to establish someone’s credentials as an “expert”?)

Thus, Reviews.com ended up with this list of criteria for recommending dog food formulations:

  1. We removed products where the first ingredient is not a meat of any kind.
  2. We removed products containing corn, soy, wheat, grain, or flour.
  3. We removed products containing beet pulp or sugar.
  4. We removed products that contained by-products or sauces.
  5. We reviewed brands for recalls, ingredient sources, history, and customer satisfaction.
  6. We reviewed the remaining formulas based on the best ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, as well as the source of protein.

Any companion animal nutritionist would argue that this list is exactly backward—and, in fact, that numbers 1-4 are misguided at best. As Aldrich wrote: “Since proteins are the dietary cornerstone for carnivores, they may be the most exploited in this manner. Whether it be ‘yuck’ factors with organ meats, misunderstood regulatory definitions for terms like ‘by-product’ or elitism with novel or exotic species, there are important nutritional decisions being made based solely on the ingredient name and not on any measured nutritional parameter. Perhaps because consumers and retailers don’t understand what nutritional protein quality is relative to an animal’s needs, they don’t have anything else to use for decision-making.”

That, in my mind, is really the crux of the matter. Besides marketing’s heavy hand, the fact is that it’s much easier to communicate to consumers, and for them to comprehend, ingredient names—especially those that also appear on the foods they eat—than it is to explain and understand nutrients.

Given only so much space on a pet food package, combined with regulatory restrictions and requirements, it is somewhat understandable why pet food marketers focus so much on ingredients. The question is whether that is beneficial to pets, their owners or the pet food industry.

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dphillips@wattnet.net

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