Ingredients vs. nutrients: what should pet owners know?

The focus on pet food ingredients, by consumers and pet food marketers, often means a lack of understanding of pets’ nutritional needs.

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I often hear pet food professionals bemoan that many pet owners simply don’t understand pet nutrition and believe whatever they read on the Internet about pet foods and ingredients. While I agree to some extent, I also can’t help wonder if pet food companies and marketers have contributed to this misunderstanding by stressing ingredients (and their supposed virtues and downfalls) over nutrients.

“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, president of Pet Food Technology & Ingredients, in his February 2015 “Ingredient Issues” column (

This is true not only for pet food but also probably for human food. Most consumers now scrutinize ingredient labels on their own food, too. Yet, as Craig Webb, PhD, associate professor and head of the small animal medicine section at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, has said: “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 consumer review site called, aptly,, which recently rated dog food. He was among the reviewers—one of the few who seemed to have training and experience in companion animal nutrition—and, like Aldrich, he lamented the emphasis on 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,” Webb said.’s criteria for rating dog foods definitely fell prey to that swing.

Besides marketing’s heavy hand at play, 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.

That’s the case particularly with protein sources, Aldrich indicated. “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.”

Given this, plus the limited space on a pet food package, and regulatory restrictions and requirements, it’s not difficult to see why pet food marketers hyper-focus on ingredients. But it is difficult to believe there aren’t alternatives worth exploring. Perhaps we need recommended daily allowances for pets, similar to what we see (and have come to understand) on human food labels? The first pet food company that could figure out how to do that—and, yes, surmount all the regulatory, financial and logistical hurdles—might make a huge impact in the marketplace.


Online pet food reviews: where’s the science?

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