Confusion over pet nutrition calls for consumer education

Human food nutrition can be confusing to consumers, too, as the science is continually evolving; yet pet food is even more complex and needing education.

photo by alkir,
photo by alkir,

Pet owners often claim to feel confused about pet nutrition and the number of pet food choices and claims. If it’s any consolation – and perhaps it’s another sign of pet food’s close relationship to human food – we consumers are often confused about our own nutrition, too, and the best food choices for ourselves.

“One of the most common criticisms of nutrition science is how confusing it can be,” wrote Heather Nelson Cortes, Ph.D., a nutrition consultant, in a blog post for the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute. The headline for the post posed a question similar to ones I often find myself asking, as I’m sure millions of other consumers do: “Is your breakfast healthy or not? Why foods like eggs and coffee can change from unhealthy to healthy status.”

Nelson Cortes explained that nutritionists’ and other experts’ recommendations on various foods change because the science changes and develops. “The reality is, nutrition is a relatively new and constantly evolving science. It’s a good thing that we see dietary recommendations change, because it means we learned something new and can apply those learnings to improve health.”

Individual nutrients, balance of foods and nutrients, are key

Another factor Nelson Cortes pointed to – definitely at play in pet nutrition, too – is that no one element or nutrient can be considered in isolation; the overall food matrix is critically important as well. With human food, she put it this way: “Another theory, which is becoming more common in nutrition science, is that foods can be more than the sum of their parts.

“The ‘incredible edible egg’ is packed full with all kinds of nutritional goodies,” she explained. “Yes, one medium egg does have half of the daily value for cholesterol, but with it comes 6 grams of complete protein and many micronutrients that many people in the U.S. do not get enough of, like calcium, potassium and choline, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.”

Yet, it’s difficult for us consumers to keep up with the evolving science and theories; no wonder we get confused. With pet food, the situation is even more complex. First of all, the nutrition research isn’t evolving or developing at the same pace as for human food. Pet food suffers from a dearth of research funding, meaning not enough research is publicly available even to people within the industry.

In addition, pets don’t consume just one type of food like eggs at a time, or even meals comprised of separate foods. Rather, most dogs and cats eat pet foods that are formulated to be their whole and sole diet, so the products contain multiple types of foodstuffs to ensure a complete and balanced ration (by law, in fact). And, as most pet nutritionists would explain, the balance of the foodstuffs and, more importantly, nutrients in a formulation are just as crucial as the types and quantities of foods.

That’s a key reason pet food experts (nutritionists and others) have reacted with concern over the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) investigation into canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free pet food, because it seems to be looking at ingredients like legumes and potatoes in isolation, without considering the entire formulations of the foods that have been named. (Not to mention that the agency has seemed to ignore all possible genetic factors and research.)

Sensationalist headlines, simplified coverage don’t help

Consumer confusion over pet food and nutrition is further exacerbated because coverage in mainstream media and online does not yet seem as sophisticated as with human nutrition research. At least the articles I read about new research in human nutrition seem to quote the scientists directly involved in the research or ones known to have deep knowledge of the topic in question. On the other hand, articles about pet food and nutrition often quote the local veterinarian or retailer – usually very well meaning but not necessarily steeped in pet nutrition knowledge – or come from an internet blogger or activist with a loud microphone or large following.

I realize human nutrition research can also fall prey to sensationalist headlines and overly simplified articles, but it seems worse with pet nutrition. Media coverage of FDA’s DCM investigation and updates is the most extreme, conspicuous example, yet it’s certainly not the only one.

The internet and other media outlets are rife with articles about pet food and nutrition, pet food ratings and reviews, blogs and the like – many authored, again, by those well-meaning but uninformed people who don’t know all that much about pet food formulation or nutrition science. And why would they, or how could they? It’s very complicated, developed and understood mainly by nutritionists and other experts with Ph.D.s and many years of experience in the field. These experts tend to work within the rather closed pet food industry and typically aren’t known or contacted by journalists or consumers.

Reminder of need for consumer nutrition education

All of these factors point to the crying need for consumer education on nutrition, for both human food and pet food. With the latter, it’s especially challenging because the people who know the most about pet nutrition are those experts within the industry, often working for a pet food company. So any information they impart is seen as biased or not credible by consumers uninclined to trust the industry or the companies that comprise it.

An independent nutrition consultant, George Collings, Ph.D., is attempting to take on this necessary but tough task with a new consumer-focused website about pet nutrition. Called (named after Collings’ “grand-dog,” Satchmo), it includes articles about various elements of pet food and nutrition, an ingredient glossary and even reviews of pet foods on the market.

So far only two reviews have been posted, but the key element is that, unlike with many other pet food review sites, the criteria aren’t the reviewers’ own ideas or preferences for types of ingredients. Rather, Collings has developed a methodology – SNIFF, or summary, nutrition, ingredients, finished food and feeding instructions – with a key step of having the products analyzed by an independent, third-party lab to see if the guaranteed amounts listed on the label are true. In addition, Collings is a board-certified nutritionist and scientist, so he brings to bear more than just opinions based on what’s popular.

I don’t know if consumers will respond to this type of website; I certainly hope so, for their own and their pets’ sake even more so than for the industry. This type of information won’t completely prevent confusion or being overwhelmed by all the choices on pet food shelves or online, but perhaps it starts to crack the code for pet owners so they can feel better about what they’re feeding their furry family members.




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