Why consumers think so many pet food ingredients are bad

The ongoing consumer desire for clean pet food labels and ‘free from’ claims often results from rampant online misinformation about pet food ingredients.

Corn and soy are among the pet food ingredients that have been demonized by online misinformation and myths. l Andrea Gantz
Corn and soy are among the pet food ingredients that have been demonized by online misinformation and myths. l Andrea Gantz

A significant consumer trend in both pet food and human food has been the so-called clean label movement: shorter ingredients lists with more recognizable names and, especially, the prevalence of “free from” or “no” claims. That started several years ago with “no additives or preservatives,” which is still the most common natural-related claim worldwide, according to Innova Market Research. For pet food, 53 percent of new product launches in the US carried such claims in 2016.

Of course, free-from claims have expanded far beyond that common one. In human food, gluten free and non-GMO keep growing in popularity; in pet food, grain free can be considered an equivalent to gluten free, while non-GMO is also becoming more of a factor.

Yet that’s still just the beginning, it seems. “The list of ‘omitters’ in the pet food category seems to be expanding every day,” commented Maria Lange, business group director of GfK’s Pet POS Tracking Team, in a recent column for Pet Business.  She then listed other claims “popping up on wet, dry and treat items in pet stores across the country” (the US), including potato free, chicken or poultry free, carrageenan free and BPA/BHT/ethoxyquin free.

That list joins others we’ve seen increasingly over the past few years, including claims like “no by-products,” “no corn, wheat or soy” or, always a favorite, “no fillers.” (What does that even mean?) Pet food companies are making these claims – and, more importantly, trying to formulate their products to meet them – based on consumer demand. For example, consumer surveys conducted by Packaged Facts show that 25 percent of US pet owners seek pet food products with “no fillers/by-products” claims, while 22 percent look for “corn-free” claims.

Dr. Google’s take on pet food and ingredients

What spurs pet owners to think they should avoid these ingredients in the pet foods they buy? Often, it’s from reading misinformation and myths on the internet – what someone I know refers to as “Dr. Google.” Such misinformation has been around for a while, and it’s partially the pet food industry’s fault, in my opinion. After the 2007 melamine-related pet food recalls, when many consumers first started to become truly aware of how pet food is made and the ingredients in it, pet food companies had a golden opportunity to open up to pet owners and educate them – with accurate information.

A few pet food makers did just that, but many missed the opportunity. The internet abhors a vacuum, so into it rushed all sorts of “experts” with their opinions, agendas and myths about pet food and ingredients. That morass of misinformation has only grown since then, and that’s what many pet owners see and believe.

Case in point: Pet Age magazine recently posted a list of “worst pet food ingredients,” sourcing the same list on NaturalNews.com written by Lisa Newman, ND, PhD, of Azmira.com, Mike Adams of HealthRanger.org and the Consumer Wellness Center. The list encompasses dozens of ingredients, each receiving only one star and including a brief, usually derogatory description. No scientific sources are cited for the descriptions.

The list is part of a special report, “Pet Food Ingredients Revealed!” by the same authors. The NaturalNews.com page includes a table of contents with other sections of the report, including a two-part “pet food ingredients listed by best to worst.” Part 1 includes ingredients receiving ratings of three to five stars. I suppose it’s good news that this list seems at least as long as the one-star ingredient list?

Do consumers read the fine print?

What’s telling is the “Additional notes” section at the bottom of each list on NaturalNews.com:

“The comments on pet food ingredients listed here are the opinion of Dr. Lisa Newman and are based on over 20 years of clinical experience in nutritional therapies for pets. Dr. Newman’s line of pet products includes premium holistic food, herbal supplements and nutritional supplements. Dr. Newman's website is www.Azmira.com and her products are carried in natural health stores and can be ordered directly from her website. ... Both Mike Adams and NaturalNews fully endorse Dr. Newman's line of holistic pet products. No money exchanged hands in the creation of this report.”

The note goes on to further encourage viewers to considering buying Azmira products and also to consider donating to the Consumer Wellness Center.

OK, so no money was involved, but this is obviously a strong promotion for Newman and her products. Can she really be considered an objective source of information on pet food ingredients? And, how many consumers would scroll to the bottom of these extremely long lists to see this note, let alone question the integrity of the information in the lists, based on the note? The same goes for pet retailers, Pet Age’s primary audience. (And unfortunately, its editors didn’t choose to post the “best pet food ingredients” list or report on the additional note.) If people do click through to Newman’s site, will they visit the “About” page and see that her education was in human nutrition, not companion animal nutrition?

By the way, Adams happens to be the founder of NaturalNews.com. His background doesn’t seem to point to any education, training or expertise in pet nutrition, either. Oh, and he’s also the executive director of the Consumer Wellness Center. So the “cooperative effort” that NaturalNews.com cites as leading to the pet food ingredients report was a cozy one, indeed.

The bottom line for the pet food industry

I came across the Pet Age article on LinkedIn, and some of the comments to that post were, well, entertaining. (“Need to add water to the list as it may contain harmful bacteria, toxins, lead, fluoride, sodium … or cause drowning. Very nasty stuff.”) But several were serious and pointed out that lists and reports such as this, lacking any type of scientific documentation or relevant expertise, highlight the crucial need for education and transparency – and both, especially the latter, fall to pet food companies to provide.





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