Do you wonder what all the buzz is about with freeze-dried dog food?
It’s one of the fastest growing segments of the pet food market. According to Zion Market Research, global demand for freeze dried pet food was about $277 million in 2018. They forecast it’ll be about double that by 2025, reaching $525 million. Admittedly, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall pet care market. In 2011 Americans alone spent about 61.4 billion on their pets.
But more and more pet food companies are jumping on the freeze-dried bandwagon. So I thought it was time to delve into it a bit and see what the excitement is about.
Freeze dried isn’t cheap … so why is there so much demand for it? Let’s look at some details.
What Is Freeze-Drying?
Freeze-drying isn’t just a feat of modern technology. In fact, the ancient Incas in Peru used it. They stored their food crops high in the Andes mountains. The high altitude temperature and air pressure slowly vaporized the frozen water in the foods … the original freeze-drying!
In World War II, freeze-drying technology helped preserve blood plasma and penicillin. And freeze-dried food production started with coffee in 1938. (Remember instant coffee? Does anybody still drink it?)
The Freeze-Drying Process
Freeze-dried food is made by removing moisture from the food in a freeze dryer. As the name suggests … the freeze dryer works by sucking the moisture out at very cold temperatures. In fact, it’s really more of a vacuum process than a drying process.
First the food is frozen, so the water turns to ice. Then, in the vacuum chamber, the right combination of cold and pressure turns the ice directly into water vapor (or gas). It never goes through a liquid phase. This is called sublimation. The vapor then condenses onto a freezing coil in solid ice form.
This process removes the moisture … but the structure of the food remains intact. In other words, the food is still raw … but with one big difference – almost no moisture. Most freeze-dried dog foods show around 5%-7% moisture in the Guaranteed Analysis. That compares to 70% or more in frozen raw food.
Once the food is placed in a sealed package, it can sit on a shelf for years without degrading. Freeze-drying increases the shelf-life of the food because microorganisms need water to survive.
And more importantly, the freeze-drying process means the food retains most of its nutrients. There’s almost no nutrient loss in freeze-dried foods. I’ll give you more specifics about this later on.
Don’t confuse freeze-drying with other types of dried foods. Freeze drying is not the same as dehydrated or air-dried.
Dehydrated Or Air Dried Dog Foods
The biggest difference is that when you buy freeze-dried food, it’s still raw. That’s not really true of dehydrated or air-dried foods.
Freeze drying may sound the same as air drying, drum drying or dehydrating. But they’re different. The non freeze-drying technologies are similar ways of removing moisture from food … and they all use heat.
The manufacturers claim the food isn’t technically cooked … due to low temperatures. But it does get slightly cooked. So the structure of the food changes … and there is more nutrient loss.
Most companies are very careful not to tell you what temperatures they use. They want you to think their products are raw – or almost. But you can assume they use temperatures between 1400 and 180OF. So I guarantee you that dehydrated or air dried food isn’t raw. In fact, I can slow roast a slab of pork ribs at 180o … and they definitely come out cooked!
One selling point of these foods is that they have less pathogens than raw or freeze-dried foods. One air-dried food company states that they use temperatures the FDA and USDA consider a “kill step.”
Another company I asked told me:
… our food is required to be tested at both stages of the air-drying process, as there is a standard measurement that we are required to meet in order to ensure the pathogens have been properly removed. Therefore, unlike raw food, our air-dried food would not be able to leave our facility if it did not pass the proper testing requirements set forth by AAFCO and the European Union.
Well …. that’s a bit confusing. But you can’t have it both ways. If the food is heated enough to be a kill step, it’s not raw!
So what else is good about freeze-dried?
The Pros And Cons Of Freeze-Dried Dog Food
I’ve mentioned two big advantages to freeze-dried raw: it’s raw … and it keeps well.
What other Pros are there?
Long Shelf Life
Freeze dried food is usually good for at least a year. And some foods last up to 5. Look for the sell-by date on the package.
But once you open it and let the air in, you’ll need to use it within a month, in most cases. Some manufacturers recommend refrigerating it after you open the package.
The longer shelf life that doesn’t need a freezer makes it as convenient as kibble. Just scoop and serve.
Not only that, but if you travel with your dog, it’s a whole lot easier to bring along a bag of freeze-dried raw. For me that’s a key advantage … instead of trying to fit a cooler in the car to keep frozen food from spoiling on the road.
And freeze-dried is great for camping or back-packing with your dog, because it’s so light. Buy your dog a backpack and let her carry her own food!
It’s also easy to buy freeze-dried food online. It’s light and cheap to ship. For most frozen raw foods, you’ll need to go to a store … or pay a lot for shipping!
There are several reasons freeze-dried raw offers better nutrition than other packaged foods (except for frozen raw).
Nutrients Aren’t Damaged
As I mentioned earlier, the nutrients are mostly intact after freeze-drying. Freeze-dried meats retain their proteins, amino acids and other nutrients.
Important things like enzymes, fats and probiotics also retain their quality. That’s good to know, because some freeze-dried foods included added fats or probiotics. There wouldn’t be much point in paying for those if they didn’t survive the freeze-drying process.
One nutrient that does get depleted by freeze-drying is vitamin C. But that shouldn’t be something you worry about too much. Dogs make their own vitamin C … so they don’t need to get it in their food.
Dogs produce less vitamin C when they’re stressed, sick or malnourished. Signs of vitamin C deficiency can be bleeding gums, diarrhea, loose teeth or joint pain. So if you want to give your dog extra vitamin C sometimes, don’t give ascorbic acid. It’s synthetic and not well absorbed. It’s better to give a food-based supplement or add some vitamin C rich foods like berries, red peppers, broccoli or spinach.
Bone is really important to your dog as a source of calcium and other minerals. The better freeze-dried dog foods include bone in their foods. Lower quality foods will use synthetic minerals instead.
No Starch Needed
Freeze-dried foods don’t need starch. In fact, some prey model freeze-dried foods only have muscle meat, organ meat, bone … plus an omega-3 oil like herring.
But … you have to watch out. There are plenty of freeze-dried foods that add starchy foods anyway. These are often the lower cost formulas.
You’ll want to avoid foods with starches that your dog doesn’t need! (That’s one of the big reasons you avoid kibble, right?)
I’ll talk more about what to look for when I get to advice on choosing a freeze-dried dog food.
It’s Not Dead
Freeze-drying doesn’t “denature” food like cooking does. You can’t “unfry” an egg and you can’t “uncook” your dog’s food. Any kind of cooking denatures the protein.
Freeze-dried is a “live” food, just like frozen raw. Freeze-drying doesn’t kill bacteria (good or bad) or enzymes … so it’s not a dead food like kibble.
This is much better for your dog. But it does mean you need to practice basic hygiene … like wiping down surfaces and washing your hands.
Again, remember that this is a big difference between freeze-dried and dehydrated or air-dried foods. Those foods are processed with heat, and that is usually a “kill step” for pathogens.
RELATED: Why 99% of dog food is fake …
And speaking of pathogens … how can you be confident that freeze-dried foods are safe for your dog?
Just like feeding frozen raw foods … choose a food with high quality, carefully sourced ingredients. Then you shouldn’t have to worry about harmful bacteria in your dog’s freeze-dried food.
Dogs tolerate bacteria much better than humans. Their digestive tracts are acidic, so most bacteria that make people sick don’t affect dogs at all. Think of the stuff your dog snatches and swallows on walks. Or in the wild, eating whatever long-dead animals they find.
However, many manufacturers still take the added step of using high pressure pasteurization (HPP) for both frozen and freeze-dried foods.
Often they’ve been forced to do so … because the Food Safety Modernization Act has a zero-tolerance policy for bacteria in pet foods. (This is highly inconsistent, when you consider that regulators allow 7% salmonella in grocery store chicken, for example.) But it means the FDA and some state Departments of Agriculture have been coming down hard on raw foods. This has forced many into costly and usually unnecessary recalls. So most have adopted HPP.
HPP is a “kill step” that eliminates pathogens by putting extreme pressure on the food. But it doesn’t cook it, and research shows it only results in slight nutrient loss.
Other companies use a “test and hold’ approach. This means they don’t release each batch of foods for sale until they’ve tested safe.
Helping Switch To Raw
Freeze-dried foods can be a good “gateway” to raw feeding.
Dogs can get addicted to kibble. So you might have tried to switch your dog from kibble to raw. But she looked up at you with disgust … then walked away! Some freeze-dried foods have the “crunch” of kibble (but without the starches and inferior ingredients).
So … try buying one of the firmer-textured freeze-dried foods and see what she thinks! If she likes it, then you could gradually transition to a fresh or frozen raw diet.
Clearly there are a lot of pros to freeze dried dog food. So what’s the catch?
Cons Of Freeze-Dried Dog Food
Well … there’s really only one. And that’s the cost. Freeze-dried can definitely give you sticker shock.
Why is it so expensive?
Of course, the equipment is costly. But so is the freeze-drying process itself.
Freeze-drying is a laborious and slow process. It’s a big part of the reason freeze-dried foods are expensive. Freeze drying is a slow method that can’t be hurried. It takes about 2 days to freeze-dry a batch of food. And if they try to rush it, they can end up with some moisture back in the food.
And of course, you’re paying for convenience and long shelf life. It’s easy to buy freeze-dried foods online, and shipping is cheap (or free). But you’ll have to make a personal trip to the store to buy frozen raw food … unless you’re willing to pay a hefty shipping rate.
I checked a few of the good freeze-dried brands. Without mentioning any names, the prices can vary from $30 to $50 for a 1 lb bag. That’s a pretty small bag … so buy bigger or bulk sizes to save some money.
If you rehydrate the food, these prices are comparable to some raw brands. But clearly they’re way more expensive than any kibble or canned foods.
But these high-end freeze-dried foods offer really first-rate nutrition for your dog … without any fillers or potentially harmful ingredients.
And, as with other raw foods … you’ll likely save on vet bills by giving your dog a top-quality diet that supports her health!
Choosing A Freeze-Dried Raw Dog Food
When you choose a freeze-dried food, look for the same qualities you’d want in a pre-made raw diet.
If you’re feeding a freeze-dried food as your dog’s whole diet … you’ll want to look for a product that states it provides complete nutrition for your dog.
Read the package carefully. Many freeze-dried foods are sold as toppers. If you want to use freeze-dried food as a standalone diet for your dog … don’t use these toppers. They won’t provide your dog with a balanced diet.
Of course, if you just want to supplement other foods you’re giving your dog … toppers can be a great way to give your dog some variety and extra nutrition.
Then, to choose a good quality food, look for these ingredients:
Some foods will have added supplements like probiotics, kelp, apple cider vinegar. Look for food-based, all-natural supplements. You’ll want to avoid foods with synthetic vitamins and minerals (more on this below).
Others may add goat milk for extra nutrition. Make sure your dog tolerates dairy before you use a food with goat milk. Some dogs don’t digest it well.
Things To Avoid
There are a few things you don’t want to see in your freeze-dried food.
Synthetic Vitamins And Miinerals
Freeze-dried foods should have quality ingredients that stand on their own. Especially because the food doesn’t lose nutrients through freeze-drying. So if you see synthetic vitamins and minerals on the ingredient list, that’s a red flag. It suggests that the underlying ingredients are poor quality. It’s best to avoid those foods.
Another red flag would be added taurine. It’s a popular supplement these days. That’s because of the FDA investigation into taurine deficiencies and heart disease. But there’s plenty of taurine in most meats and organ meats … and no well formulated food should need added taurine. So avoid it. Taurine supplements are synthetic, too.
High Fat Content
Some freeze-dried foods are very high in fat. While fat is an important nutrient for your dog, you should limit fat in his diet to 10-20%. Higher fat content will start to cannibalize other important vitamins and minerals. It’s best to avoid those foods with 30% fat or more!
Quite a few foods have starchy ingredients that add unneeded carbs to your dog’s diet. Avoid foods with things like …
Make sure the food you buy is described as freeze-dried raw. There might be a couple of sneaky manufacturers who freeze-dry pre-cooked food. But if it says raw on the package, it can’t be cooked.
How To Feed Freeze-Dried
This should be easy! If you buy a food that’s sold as a complete diet for your dog, just follow the feeding guidelines on the package for your dog’s ideal weight.
Then follow the raw feeder’s “scientific” adjustment method. If your dog gains weight, cut back a bit. If she loses, add a bit extra.
Recommended feeding amounts on the package are usually for food in its dry state. So you can just “scoop and serve.” But you may want to let it soak a few minutes in water first.
Some freeze-dried foods recommend rehydrating the food by letting it sit in water or broth before serving, But others say it’s fine to feed as-is.
The answer may depend on the texture of the food you buy. Some foods are soft and crumbly. But others are hard little nuggets that dogs seem to enjoy munching on straight from the package. (In fact, I love using these as treats because they don’t disintegrate in your pocket.)
It’s up to you, but generally it’s a good idea to rehydrate the food with water. Or you could use bone broth for extra nourishment. One big advantage of rehydrating the food is to make it more filling for your dog.
Your dog will probably let you know which she prefers. My dogs don’t like mushy foods, so they prefer the crunchy freeze-dried food straight out of the package. If you do feed it as-is, just be sure your dog is drinking enough water. That’s important so she stays hydrated.
A Word About Preservatives
Most freeze-dried dog foods contain a preservative as an extra precaution against spoilage. You may see mixed tocopherols or rosemary extract on the ingredient list.
Mixed tocopherols are extracts of vitamin E. They’re technically synthetic, but they are an effective antioxidant that helps preserve the food. There’s no evidence of harmful side effects. You may also see D-alpha tocopherol, which is a natural tocopherol.
Rosemary extract is oily residue extracted from the leaves of rosemary plants. It prevents oxidation of fats and protects flavors.
Rosemary essential oil is said to be risky for dogs who get seizures … but the amount used is tiny, and for most dogs is safe. Herbalists Gregory L Tilford And Mary L Wulff say it’s safe in concentrations of less than 1% of the food.
In Summary …
Freeze dried dog food is a tremendous option. Yes, it’s expensive. But it has tons of benefits.
World-renowned animal nutritionist Richard Patton PhD says:
Freeze-dried dog foods equal kibble for convenience. They need no refrigeration. They’re unsurpassed for taste and nutrition. But they sell at a premium. Optimum nutrition comes from freeze-dried.
Consider freeze-dried if you want to feed raw but struggle with freezer space. Or you hate having the smell of thawing raw patties in your fridge! And if you travel with your dogs, it couldn’t be simpler. Just throw the bag and a bowl in the car.
Best of all, freeze-dried is really first-rate nutrition for your dog. And that’s what we all want for our best friends.