There are “truth in advertising” laws to protect consumers from fraudulent advertising claims. But there are often grey areas when it comes to marketing. Cleverly worded claims can often be confusing or misleading.
Pet food marketing terms are no exception. So, unless a dog food package has a verifiable certification on its label, many pet food marketing terms on the packaging are unfounded. And they often have no legal meaning under pet food regulatory standards.
Here are some ways pet food marketing terms are used to suggest better quality foods or ingredients.
Pet Food Marketing Terms Vs Ingredients
Would it surprise you that more money is spent on marketing and packaging than on the ingredients in the food? Marketers are paid big bucks to come up with terms like “gently handled,” “ethical sourcing” and “accents of fruits and vegetables” or “farm-raised beef.”
Other terminology makes pet food sound less processed than it actually is. Other food imply that their foods are what your dog would naturally eat in the wild. Or they’ll do use terms like “unique nutrient and antioxidant package” That could mean the food contains fruits and vegetables … or it could just be a synthetic vitamin and mineral premix.
Here are more pet food marketing terms you might see … that are have no legal meaning under pet food nutrition standards.
Unsubstantiated Pet Food Marketing Terms
Here’s a rundown of the terms and what they really mean.
Holistic And Natural
Natural is the most over-used word in pet food manufacturing … followed closely by “holistic.”
AAFCO allows the word natural to describe ingredients that may have been “subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation” as long as it hasn’t been subjected to a “chemically synthetic process.” AAFCO also says natural foods shouldn’t contain additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic “except in amounts that occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
This may mean the food doesn’t contain chemicals like propylene glycol, preservatives like BHA or BHT, or artificial dyes … but synthetic vitamins and minerals are allowed, even in so-called natural foods. Manufacturers can call these foods “natural with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients.”
So that leaves “natural” pretty wide open. In most cases, it probably doesn’t mean what you think (or hope) it does, when it comes to ingredient quality.
And AAFCO doesn’t even have a definition of “holistic” for pet foods. That means manufacturers can use the word however they want. So a “holistic” food can contain any ingredients and apply to any type of food, from from highly processed kibble to minimally processed raw.
Cage-free And Free-range
Manufacturers use these terms because they know what pet owners want to see … and that’s healthy, happy animals raised in sunshine. But the truth is considerably different. They’re listed to give you a sense of quality … a quality that, in all likelihood, is not there.
These claims can’t be proven. But even so, they are nothing to get excited about. All poultry raised for meat is cage-free. But cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free, and it doesn’t mean outdoors. There’s no stipulation about the size of the flock so there can be 1,000, 100,000 or 500,000 in an indoor space. Cage free doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors. There is lower air quality and more hen-on-hen violence because of the close living conditions. They are de-beaked to minimize injury.
The term “free-range” does mean that chickens have “continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for a significant portion of their lives.”
Grass-Fed And Pasture-Raised
Pasture-raised refers to animals foraging outside in natural sunshine. But pasture-raised is not a regulated practice. So being “pasture-raised” can be hijacked and used by anyone – just as “natural” gets abused. And as a general rule, all ruminants like lamb, venison, bison and beef are raised on pasture for at least part of their lives.
Grass-fed means what an animal eats (grass). And not all grass-fed cows are pasture-raised and graze outdoors … unless the meat is certified by the American Grassfed Association (AMA). If the meat used isn’t AMA certified, then it’s just marketing hype and has no legal meaning.
Pasture-raised chicken is an unregulated label so marketers will stamp it everywhere. “Pastured” chickens are raised inside but have access to a an outdoor space. But there’s no way to prove it.
If you see a Certified Humane seal, that confirms the animal ingredients in dog food have been humanely-raised. This certification covers the type of feed, access to the outdoors, shelter, size of herd, space per animal, sleep, transportation time, slaughter and more. There’s a certification process for each kind of animal … cattle, chickens, goats, pigs and others.
Various certifications have differing levels of “humane” treatment … or not. Several of the humanely-raised certifications don’t make outdoor access or other needs a requirement. That means the level of “humanely-raised” is up to interpretation. As you can see by the list above, it’s quite a process to get certified so most dog food manufacturers will describe their animals “humanely-raised.” And that means it’s usually more marketing hype than practice.
Ethically-raised is just more marketing hype. There is no legal definition for this term. Unlike “humanely-raised” which does have a certification process, there is no such certification process when it comes to ethically-raised animals. Marketers prey on your desire to want to avoid animal suffering. Unfortunately, you’ll see the term “ethically-raised” on conventionally raised animals from factory farms. They’re still raised in confined quarters where beak trimming and tail docking are practiced. There are no rules to adhere to because it’s an empty term with no certifying body.
To label chicken or pork as hormone-free is like saying blueberries are gluten-free … or broccoli is cholesterol-free. The FDA prohibits the use of hormones in pork and poultry … so it’s not there to begin with! If the label says “no hormones added” this statement is a requirement: “US federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” But hormones are allowed in beef cattle, as well as lambs. All meat is weaned off hormones when it goes for processing. That’s a requirement of the USDA. The correct term for an animal that has never been introduced to hormones or antibiotics is “No added hormones or antibiotics.”
Human-grade And Claims Of Ingredient Quality
Many pet foods claim “human grade” ingredients. But this term has no legal definition, and that’s why pet food manufacturers can use it. They have nothing to prove! There is only one pet food company that the FDA has approved using this term. This company maintains its ingredients in a human-edible condition from beginning to end. Others may claim human grade ingredients because they came from a USDA meat packing plant, but that quickly degrades … usually once they leave the slaughterhouse in an unsterilized, unrefrigerated truck.
Meat ingredient claims must have third-party certifications that say organic, sustainably-raised, locally raised on pasture-based farms, humanely-raised, free-range, Certified Humane. If there isn’t a certifying body you can check with, then the label isn’t legit … and it’s just marketing sleight of hand.
Sustainability is on everyone’s minds. But many companies are all talk and no walk. Unless dog food manufacturers can prove they are sourcing from providers that have gone to the trouble of obtaining sustainability certification … it has no meaning. This is a difficult process for companies. Energy and agriculture have the highest impact on the planet as their use and production trickle down to affect all aspects of the food chain. That means from growth and harvest through to manufacturing and processing, there are a lot of influences on sustainability so it’s virtually impossible to ensure all aspects are sustainable. If you want to ensure a level of sustainability, avoid products that have a high carbon footprint. Of course, livestock, fish and agriculture are at the top of the list. So you can see how it’s impossible for companies to promote sustainable products.
RELATED: Meat in pet foods: Is it really meat?
Other Marketing Terms
Meat Is The First Ingredient
A food may claim that a meat (chicken, lamb, etc) is the #1 ingredient in its dry food. Ingredients are listed by weight, so raw chicken weighs a lot more than dry grains. Then chicken is diluted to create a slurry with about 10% chicken and 90% plain water. Further down the list are chicken meal, poultry by-product meal and meat-and-bone meal. To make a meal, animal products have the fat and water removed, leaving a dry, lightweight protein powder. So it doesn’t take much chicken + water to weigh more than a big pile of this powder. In reality, the food is based on the protein meal, not the chicken at the top of the list. Cheap foods along with premium and “holistic” brands use this gimmick.
A label might list beef as the #1 ingredient. It’s followed by meat meals, various types of peas, corn and oats…. You’ve just been introduced to ingredient splitting. This is when manufacturers divide a low-quality ingredient into two or more ingredients. It artificially keeps meat higher on the ingredient list. You might see ground oats, whole oats and oatmeal. They’re all oats! Ditto for peas, pea fiber and pea protein. When you add the amounts together they move up the list and ahead of the meat.
RELATED: Read more about pet food ingredient-splitting …
The Salt Divider
Most pet foods follow a similar formula with salt making up less than 1% of the food. This is fine for things like vitamins and minerals because only small amounts are needed. Anything listed after salt is less than 1% of the total food. This allows manufacturers to add minute amounts of fruits and vegetables. They can add a handful, or less (!) of blueberries, kale or broccoli to a vat of food. This allows marketers to display them in colorful photography on the packaging, leading consumers to believe there are lots of healthy ingredients in the food.
And if you’re savvy at looking for salt on the label, you’ll also want to know different names for salt. Look for sodium chloride or iodized salt, or they might group it under “vitamins and minerals.” You might see names like sea salt, brine, sodium propionate, choline chloride, sodium nitrite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium erythorbate, sodium benzoate or disodium EDTA. It’s all salt.
RELATED: Read more about what you can learn from the salt divider …
This implies the food is made using ingredients that are approved by the USDA for human consumption. If the pet food is processed in a USDA plant using shared equipment, the plant must use human edible products. These are USDA inspected meats. If using uninspected products, the pet food must be processed using separate equipment . This comes from a USDA inspected facility – but it isn’t USDA inspected meat.
Premium And Super-Premium
These terms, and others like them that suggest a grade or level, have no legal definitions. The FDA says “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.” So they are meaningless marketing terms that might just mean you’re paying more money for the food.
Life Stages And Lifestyles
If you do a side-by-side comparison of various “lifestyle” foods, you won’t see much difference in the ingredients. Various manufacturers have divided your pet’s life into 3 to 7 different life stages. And they have a specific food for each one! But in nature, once an animal is weaned, he eats the same diet in prey form for the rest of his life.
In the nutritional standards of pet foods, there are only two life stages: adult, and everything else: gestation (pregnancy), lactation (nursing) and growth (puppies). All those other designations are manipulations of ingredient proportions, with the possible addition of a few extra ingredients. But if a food is labeled “all life stages” it must meet more stringent requirements for growth. Anything else is just marketing hype.
Is your dog a canine athlete or does he have a sensitive tummy or itchy feet? Or is he a large or small breed? Then you can find a food aimed at his personal needs. Focusing on niches is a big deal in pet food marketing. Just look at some brands that have dozens of foods under the parent label. They are designed with specific appeal that will sell better than a general product like “puppy food.”
Be aware that only veterinary prescription diets are allowed to make specific health claims that their foods may reduce the risk of a health condition, like kidney disease, arthritis, or allergies.
Pet Food Certifications To Look For
These are some certifications that have some meat behind their meaning.
This is a well-respected label that needs verification. The Non-GMO Project is an independent nonprofit organization. Participants voluntarily submit their products to meet rigorous requirements and receive non-GMO verification. Holders of this certification need to be audited regularly.
USDA Certified Organic
This is one of the few labels that carry meaning. USDA Organic is the only USDA certification that must adhere to regulations. Producers undergo an annual inspection and must maintain 100% compliance. Animals must eat an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Production of organic feed follows USDA regulations for planting, growing, raising and handling. The USDA Organic label also verifies that genetic engineering or GMOs were not used or fed to animals. The USDA does not claim that organically produced food is healthier, safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.
It should be easy to tell if a company has sustainable practices. They should have them noted front and center on their website and their packaging. It’s a challenging practice so they definitely want to tell you all about it! If you have to look hard for it, then chances are they’re not engaging in sustainable practices.
- Plastic Neutral Label. This is one program that companies can become involved in to reduce the use of plastic and promote it on a wider scale.
- If there’s fish in your dog’s food, you can check whether it’s from certified sustainable fisheries, certified by an organization like the Marine Stewardship Council, RFM or ASC. Fishwatch.gov is another good resource for seafood sustainability information.
If you care about sustainability, look for these and other sustainability certifications on the manufacturer’s website or packaging.
Global Animal Partnership
These animals are raised without the use of antibiotics, added hormones or animal by-products. The higher the number, the more the animal’s environment represents its natural environment. There are 6 levels denoting an enriched environment, outdoor access, pasture-raised, animal-centered and entire life on the farm. Beware that just having the basic label means only the bare minimum is being done. So, there are no crates, cages or crowding but animals could still be raised in an indoor environment with thousands of animals for their entire life.
As you can see, knowing how to read an ingredient label is only Step 1 of the process. Then you need to know how to interpret all the pet food marketing terms on the actual packaging to understand whether they actually mean better quality or safer ingredients.