In our third article on veterinary nutrition, we’re going to address some of the other terms found on pet food labels that don’t quite fit on the AAFCO feeding statement or ingredient list.
There are a number of terms that are used as part of marketing but really do very little to give us additional information about the ingredients or quality of the food. The United States Food & Drug Administration regulates pet food labels and has specific regulations regarding proper product identification, net quantity statement, name and place of business of the manufacturer or distributor, and proper listing of all the ingredients in the product based on weight (ordered most to least).
Products labeled as “premium” or “gourmet” are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.
The term “natural” does not have an official definition either, though AAFCO has developed a feed term definition for what types of ingredients can be considered “natural” and “Guidelines for Natural Claims” for pet foods. For the most part, “natural” can be considered as a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product. For high-fat dry products, some form of preservative must be used to prevent rancidity. Natural-source preservatives, such as mixed tocopherols (a source of vitamin E), can be used in place of artificial preservatives. However, they may not be as effective.
“Natural” is not the same as “organic.” The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised and currently only has a regulatory definition in human food. The United States Department of Agriculture is working to develop regulations dictating what types of synthetic additives, such as vitamins and purified amino acids, may be used in pet foods labeled as organic.
Health claims on pet foods are enforced by discretion of the FDA, but there are few health claims that pet foods companies can legally make. Claims that food can reduce, prevent or treat a disease are only permitted on veterinary medical diets, and even then, these foods are only allowed to convey the information on the relationship of a diet and disease in veterinary-directed literature to help veterinarians treat their patients appropriately (otherwise the diet would be considered a drug and have to be approved as such). The labels, including product names, cannot include names of diseases; this is why many of these veterinary medical foods are named with initials or numbers.
A great resource for owners and veterinarians regarding pet foods is the Pet Nutrition Alliance. And in a couple weeks, we’ll round out our nutrition series with a breakdown of the “guaranteed analysis” of pet food labels.