Navigating pet food product claims, part 3: natural

For US pet food labels, it helps to know the nuances of the regulatory definition for natural claims, and consider what consumers believe natural means.

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Javier Brosch |
Javier Brosch |

Just about everyone in the pet food marketplace is making natural label claims regardless of channel, as I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. Nonetheless, does the industry and, more importantly, the consumer understand what the term natural means when it comes to pet food? In this blog post, I will discuss the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) definition of natural, sort through the terminology and finally explain what the term natural means for pet food (in the US).

What is the definition of natural?

AAFCO defines natural as:

A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes (AAFCO, 2017).

What is the layman’s understanding of natural?

In general, I like to oversimplify the definition. Think of it as taking a whole ingredient (e.g., a pea), processing (drying) and separating (e.g., grinding and air classifying) it to produce two individual ingredients (e.g., pea protein and pea starch). 

Conversely, synthetic processes involve reactions that build up or produce a new unique ingredient (A+B=C). For example, reacting sulfuric acid with phosphate rock produces phosphoric acid. In short, breaking it down is natural and building it up is not.

What does natural not mean?

Notice the last part of the AAFCO definition: not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes. Why do I point this out? This statement permits the use of chemical processing aids if the processing does not change the natural composition of the final ingredient and is not present in the final ingredient in sufficient amounts.  

You might be thinking, so what? Buff et al. (2014) sheds light on this nuance in his review of natural pet food. In his article, he points out that hexane-extracted soybean oil is considered a natural pet food ingredient if the hexane is not present in the final ingredient except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices (maximum levels are not defined). Thus, hexane-extracted oil and cold-pressed oil are both considered natural under the current AAFCO definition. 

Lastly, natural does not mean that the food or ingredient is non-GMO, organic or does not contain natural preservatives.

What about natural pet food?

By AAFCO definition, most pet foods in the marketplace are not 100 percent natural because they contain synthetic vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other trace nutrients. Since pet foods are designed to be complete and balanced, it is not easily cost-effective to make a 100 percent natural food.

As a result, AAFCO provides guidelines and disclaimers for foods that are unable to deliver the necessary nutrition and be 100 percent natural (AAFCO, 2017). Consequently, most natural pet foods will state and carry a disclaimer, such as “natural with added vitamins, mineral and other trace nutrients.” To ensure the consumer is aware of this caveat, AAFCO requires that the disclaimer is present wherever the most prominent (i.e., the largest font) use of the term natural appears on each panel of the package. 

Where do you fall on the natural spectrum?

I ask this question because natural is not defined for human foods and ingredients. As a result, consumers apply their own opinions and beliefs about natural, usually based on lifestyle choices (e.g., non-GMO, organic, no chemical processes, etc.). The disconnect between human food and pet food regulations results in lawsuits against brands like Nutrish over its natural dog food label claims (Wall, 2017).

Similar lawsuits will likely arise until natural is defined for human foods. In the meantime, pet food companies should be transparent in their ingredient sourcing and processing so the consumer is completely aware of what natural means in pet food. Additionally, if you plan on sending your products to the European Union, I recommend making sure you read their guidelines (FEDIAF, 2011) as their definition of natural excludes chemical treatments and GMOs.

Finally, I leave you with this question: Based on consumer perception, are you less natural or more natural than the industry norm?

Next topic: organic and non-GMO

Next time we will discuss, “Navigating through product claims, part 4: organic and non-GMO.” If there are topics you would like to have discussed, feel free to comment below or reach out via LinkedIn:



Association of American Feed Control Officials. 2017 Official Publication.

Buff et al., 2014. Natural pet food: A review of natural diets and their impact on canine and feline physiology. J. Anim. Sci. 92:3781–3791.

European Pet Food Industry Federation, 2011. Code of good labelling practice for pet food.

Wall, 2017. Nutrish faces lawsuit over natural dog food label. Date Accessed: Nov. 29, 2017. 

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