Pet food nutrition: protein hype and digestibility

Recent pet food research and analysis highlight several myths about protein in pet food that many consumers believe and some companies perpetuate.

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When it comes to their pets’ nutrition – and even their own – consumers tend to focus on ingredients in foods, because they are more likely to recognize those substances and where they come from. But any nutritionist, whether in pet food or human food, will tell you what’s most important are the nutrients being delivered by the food to meet the pet’s (or person’s) daily needs. Key to that nutrient delivery is their digestibility, and that’s where ingredients really play a role: Are essential nutrients in the ingredients actually absorbed into the body during digestion?

Two studies on pet food digestibility conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and University of Copenhagen (Tjernsbekk et al., Journal of Animal Science, 2016) looked at the digestibility of protein ingredients commonly used in pet foods. Their findings, along with an analysis by Linda Case, author of the Science Dog blog (and an animal nutritionist herself), highlight several myths believed by many pet owners and, frankly, perpetuated by some pet food companies.

Exposing pet food protein myths

For example, two popular label claims, which pet parents tend to believe and spread online, are named species meals versus generic meat meals and chicken first in the ingredients list. The concept is that both cases mean higher-quality protein; yet in terms of digestibility, that’s not true for either claim, at least not according to this latest research. (A third belief, that lamb meal is a high-quality protein source for pets, was also proven untrue.) On her blog, Case does a good job of explaining the studies’ findings and their significance in terms of how dog owners should evaluate dog foods and their labels.

The hype over protein for pets – including the related hype over meat first, fresh meat, high meat levels, ancestral diets, you name it – seems to continue and grow unabated, despite the fact that, until recently, not much research has existed to back the label claims and rampant internet proselytizing. (Note that Petfood Forum 2017 will include new research from Emma Bermingham, PhD, who’s affiliated with Massey University in New Zealand, on biologically appropriate raw pet diets; and during Petfood Forum Europe, Jennifer Adolphe, PhD, of Petcurean will examine available science and research on high-protein pet foods.)

Now, some pet food professionals might be thinking: If pet owners are willing to pay more for high-protein diets, higher meat levels, fresh meat inclusion and the like, what’s the issue? For one thing, if this way of feeding is not backed by sound science, we don’t know if it is truly better for pets or if it could possibly cause them harm in the long run. And for both short and long term, there is not an infinite supply of these animal-based proteins, especially as the human population grows worldwide and, with it, the level of people moving into the middle class who can afford, and want, to eat more meat. The pet food industry is directly competing with that increasing demand in human food.

Focusing on pet food digestibility

Case’s blog post discusses another issue: pet food companies’ lack of transparency when it comes to the digestibility of their products. “It is not a difficult value to determine and most pet food companies already conduct feeding trials that measure this (yet keep the results to themselves),” she wrote. “As one of the most basic measures of food quality, digestibility provides essential information that can help dog owners to select the best food for their dog.

“If pet food manufacturers insist on telling us that their brands of food are expected to provide ‘complete and balanced nutrition’ throughout our dogs’ lives, then providing a few very simple measures of the quality of those foods is not too much to ask,” Case added later in the post.

I greatly respect Case and her work, and I certainly agree that most pet food companies could (and should) be more transparent about what’s in their products and how they back their label claims. But is digestibility really a measure that most consumers would look for on a label or a brand’s website and compare among products, let alone understand?

When it comes to pet food labels and whether pet owners can comprehend them – news flash, they often can’t, and that’s because of the labels themselves, not shoppers’ intelligence – I can’t help comparing the situation to human food labels. Consumers often don’t understand every element on a human food label (or even most); they’ve just become familiar with the format, and many have educated themselves to look for or avoid certain ingredients and be able to compare similar products.

There is finally movement to improve and simplify pet food labels (at least in the US) and make them resemble the familiar human food labels. I question whether adding yet another element – a digestibility measure – to pet foods would mark a step in the right direction. It likely would cause further confusion, unless accompanied by a significant education effort, and let’s face it, our industry has not proved adept at that.

However, I do agree with Case that, in response to direct inquiries from pet owners who do know about and understand digestibility, pet food companies should be fully forthcoming with this information on their products.





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