We’ve heard it for centuries, from our mother or father, and they have heard it from their parents, and them from their parents, while sitting at the dinner table:
“Eat your vegetables!”
Vegetables are a symbol of health worldwide; an essential food group that must be added to our plates in order to give us the perception that we are making healthy choices. For most of us, it works. We feel good knowing that somewhere in our breakfast, lunch, or dinner that there is some kind of fruit or vegetable, and, for the rest of the day we will have peace of mind knowing that we did something right.
To a pet food marketer, it’s important to give us that confirmation and reassurance when we purchase their food, that same feeling that we are doing something right. Their goal is for us, the pet owner, to look at their packaging and make us crave it. They actually try to make us think: “I would eat that!” The term in the industry is called humanization.
The pet food industry is constantly trying to humanize pet food by adding exotic fruits, vegetables, and even superfoods, to the ingredient panels, thinking that this will raise the ante over the competition. It would only make sense for manufacturers to splash pictures of real, whole, fresh foods all over the packages. If it’s splattered all over the package, then surely there must be tons of it in the food, right?
I can recall a point in my life, many years back when I thought I was ahead of the game when it came to pet food ingredient labels. I knew that I wanted to avoid “by-products”, “corn”, “BHA & BHT’s”, etc. My White Shepherd, Sammie, had developed serious kidney issues at a young age. The obvious thing to do was to find a bag of kibble that contained cranberries. Remember, I was ahead of the game and knew that cranberries + kidney problems = positive results. So I got in my car and drove to the nearest pet store in search of the bag with the largest picture of a cranberry I could find. When I found it, it was like I was in a movie. Everything around me froze, I could hear angels singing in the background, and there it was: a giant, pure white bag with the reddest and most delicious-looking cranberries displayed proudly on the front, starring right at me!
I rushed over and grabbed it, flipped the bag over and found what I was looking for in the ingredient list: cranberries. Perfect!!
As some of you may already know, an ingredient panel on a package of pet food goes from greatest to least (before it is cooked). Seeing cranberries in this list, along with the giant photo on the front of the bag, lead me to believe that this was the miracle food my dog needed for her kidneys until…
One day, months later, I started researching in more depth the complexity of ingredient labels. I stumbled across something that changed my life and my pet’s life forever.
Although the pet food manufacturer’s recipe is a trade secret, through research I discovered ingredients that can act as markers to help give us an idea of the quantities being used. There is one ingredient in particular that can help us shed some light on the mirage marketers may be trying to create.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends that dry dog food contains at least 0.3% sodium, and that dry cat food contains at least 0.2% sodium, for both maintenance and to support normal growth and development. These are minimum recommended levels.
Quoting Dr. Marion Nestlé, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and Malden Nesheim, Professor of Nutrition Emeritus and Provost Emeritus at Cornell University, in their book “Feed Your Pet Right”:
“Because most pet foods use similar formulas, our rule of thumb is that any ingredient that follows salt on the list must make up less than 1 percent of the diet. This has to be true for ingredients like vitamins and trace minerals because only tiny amounts are needed […]. Salt is a convenient marker of quantity.”
They called it the Salt Divider
So anything that follows salt is basically found in tiny, minuscule amounts in the product.
After reading that, I rushed to my bag of kibble and frantically searched the ingredient panel. Organic chicken… potatoes… eggs… there it is: salt! Here is an example of how my ingredient list looked:
“Organic chicken, potato, arctic char, chicken fat naturally preserved with mixed tocopherols, sweet potatoes, dried egg product, peas, natural chicken flavor, dried tomato pomace, whole flaxseed, lecithin, potassium chloride, “salt”, choline chloride, yeast extract, calcium carbonate, dried chicory root (a source of inulin), ferrous sulfate, taurine, zinc oxide, organic duck, alpha tocopherol acetate (a source of vitamin E), apples, “organic cranberries”, yucca schidigera extract, crab and shrimp meal, New Zealand green mussels, sea cucumber, organic dried blueberries, organic dried pineapple, honey, organic dried rosemary, organic dried parsley, organic dried spearmint, organic carob, organic dried seaweed meal, organic dehydrated alfalfa meal, organic asparagus, organic green tea extract, organic dried spinach, organic dried broccoli, organic dried carrot, organic dried cauliflower, zinc …”
Ten ingredients past salt, after all of these vitamins and minerals, was organic cranberries.
This can’t be right, I said to myself. The 30lb bag of food I had bought had a cranberry the size of a football on it! The food just HAD to contain a decent amount of the ingredient. However, the ingredient panel had it listed ten ingredients past salt, meaning less than a sprinkle of a cranberry was actually in that bag; no more than a pinch in almost 120 cups, or a 40 day supply, of food!
It was like everything I thought I knew about pet food and ingredients labels, all of which formed a perfect bubble, popped.
The promise of cranberries, along with images of blueberries, apples and duck, which took up more than half the front of the bag, was deliberately misleading. The reality was that the amount of those four ingredients together would most likely equal the size of a single blueberry.
I really want to stress on this ABSURD reality.
This is the part in the movie where one should turn up the volume. I, as the manufacturer, can take a single teeny tiny apple seed and drop it into a massive 30lb bag of pet food, and then actually list it on my ingredient panel. To add salt to the wound (pun intended) I can then splash apples all over the front of my bag. That is right, I just sold you the illusion, that you are going home with a bag full of food containing healthy, delicious apples to feed your pet and I haven’t broken any rules.
This is the flaw in the rulebook that is being highly exploited by manufacturer and their marketers.
With pets in need of certain vegetables, herbs, nutraceuticals and other nutrients in their diets, owners must realize the importance of paying attention to detail.
Expensive ingredients, organic ingredients, GMO free ingredients; these are plastered all over the packages with full-blown visuals, yet they fall almost 5 to 25 ingredients past our salt divider.
Read Your Labels
The moral of the story is: read your labels and do some research. Do not allow the visual on the package or the perception of certain ingredients determine your overall purchasing decision. If you want to give your pet cranberries, then go buy some that are fresh and locally grown and personally add them to their dish.