Features October 2000 Issue

Whole Dog Journal's 2000 Canned Dog Food Review

WDJ’s top 20 canned dog foods (and why they tend to be expensive).

For a long time, pet food manufacturers have been accustomed to making their products without much scrutiny; for many years, they seemed to feel that all consumers need to know is that the food passed somebody’s tests as to “complete and balanced nutrition.”

The food makers have gone along with labeling requirements to include the ingredients (listed in descending order of weight), as well as the least nutritional information imaginable: minimum amounts of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum amounts of fiber and moisture. But they don’t, with very few exceptions, publish the information of most significance to most people who are concerned about what they eat, things like vitamin, mineral, calorie, and carbohydrate levels.

Despite the common perception that canned
foods are chemical soups, generally, they
have less chemical additives than dry foods.

But as we, the dog-owning public, become progressively more educated about the foods we are feeding our beloved companions, we have demanded to know more and more – and the makers frequently don’t want to tell us what we want to learn. They often explain that pet food manufacturing is an extremely competitive business (what isn’t, these days?) and they can’t share the information with you for fear that the knowledge will spread and this will result in some sort of advantage by their competitors.

The truth is, most are afraid of being “caught” doing what pet food makers have always done: using second-class (or much worse) ingredients, sometimes in shoddy, second-class manufacturing plants. If you think we’re exaggerating, ask a company representative, “What exactly is the source of the ‘animal proteins’ in this food?” “Where exactly do you buy your chicken, or beef, or lamb?” Or even, “In which plant – in which state – is your food manufactured?” See if you can get a straight answer.

Quality is expensive
If we were just shopping for the cheapest 50-pound sack, or case of cans, of any old food that met the minimum standards for basic nutrition, to throw out to the nameless mutts tied out behind the barn, this might go over. But we don’t know anybody fitting that description.

Dog owners today are increasingly emotionally and financially invested in their companion animals. And as those investments grow, people are starting to suspect that there might just be a connection between the endemic levels of disease dogs suffer from – things like allergies, itching, ear infections, hot spots, vomiting, and diarrhea, not to mention arthritis, lupus, cancer, diabetes, Cushings disease, Addison’s disease, etc., etc. – and the commercial food they eat on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the veterinarians who know enough about nutrition to be able to help us help our dogs to greater health are few and far between. We don’t commonly find vets who have taken advanced studies in nutrition, in order to augment the little they learned about nutrition in veterinary school. Many vets seem to be content to repeat the bromide, “Feed a complete and balanced (commercial) dog food and your dog will be fine.” There are numerous veterinarians who will tell you – because this is what they were told in school, and they really believe it to be true – that feeding your dog “people” food like real meat and poultry and vegetables will hurt him.

(Do we sound paranoid? Maybe we are. But are you aware that pet food makers give free or vastly reduced-price foods to veterinary students for their own pets? It’s a gesture of goodwill that is surely meant to get the young vets familar with and hooked on those brands. And did you know that the largest pet food makers in the world are also among the biggest financial contributors to vet schools, and underwrite many college veterinary textbooks? It’s no wonder that the standard veterinary opinions on nutrition closely mirror those of the manufacturers!)

Pet food revolution
But there is some good news: Increasingly, there are people coming into the pet food industry who want to provide more than just another dog food; in today’s market, we are seeing more and more “gourmet” dog food makers who are out to make and sell the best food they can make. It really doesn’t matter whether they are attracted to this industry by the potential for making money at producing the most expensive food in the world, or because they really love animals and want to make a difference.

Today there are canned foods of such high
quality that you can actually identify
pieces of real foods – carrots, rice, peas,
and so on – when you open the can.

We care more about the fact that the innovators in dog food are incrementally improving what dogs eat, by using whole meats and meat meal made from whole meats, rather than cast-off meat by-products. They are using whole grains, vegetables, and fruits in their formulations. They (ever so rarely) might even use organic foods.

While there are still far more low-quality commercial dog foods available to consumers than there are good- or high-quality foods, it’s still rather amazing to us that there are high-quality foods out there. The catch is, they are expensive. You must realize that by utilizing high-quality ingredients, the price of these foods is going to be higher. Cheap foods contain inferior ingredients; there is no getting around that fact. You can’t put high-quality – or even good-quality – meats into something that will sell for $10 for 40 pounds or 39 cents a can. It can’t be done.

This really does represent a revolution. There is no way that even, say, 10 years ago, a company could ask for a $1.50 or more for a small can of dog food. Few people would have understood why or how a food could be that expensive, and why they should even consider buying it for their dogs.

But, today, we’re making the connections. Now we’re beginning to understand that we can consider the price of high-quality, high-cost foods as preventing high veterinary bills later on. As the “bones and raw food” people say, “You can pay now, or you can pay later!”

Canned food facts
Despite the common perception that canned foods are chemical soups, as a general group, they actually contain way fewer chemical additives than dry foods. Artificial colors and flavors are much less common in canned foods than they are in their dried food equivalents. Preservatives are unnecessary and rarely seen, due to the sealed, oxygen-free environment that a can offers. (Because of the lack of preservatives, canned foods must be kept refrigerated after opening, just like any other fresh food. And if a dog doesn’t finish all of his canned food immediately, the food must be discarded. Harmful bacteria can quickly develop in meat-based foods that linger at room temperature.)

The most common chemical additives in canned food are stabilizers, emulsifiers, and thickening agents, which are used to make canned food hold together in a more attractive fashion. These include carrageenan gum, guar gum, vegetable gum, potassium chloride, dicalcium phosphate, and calcium carbonate. We’re not aware of specific health hazards associated with these additives, but our attitude toward all additives that are not nutritive is, “Can’t we do without this?”

Most other ominous-sounding chemicals in canned foods are vitamin and mineral sources. Some of the most commonly seen include: choline chloride, a dietary supplement in the B complex; ferrous sulfate, a nutritional iron source; manganese oxide, a nutritional manganese source; and calcium pantothenate, a B-complex vitamin.

Our selection criteria
We required the following for a product to make it into the running for our Top 20 Canned Dog Foods:

• We will accept no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

• We rejected any food containing meat or poultry by-products. This eliminates most grocery-store food, as well as the foods long regarded by pet store managers as “premium” (read, “Expensive, due to extensive advertising, not due to superior ingredients). We’re talking about Iams, Science Diet, Nature’s Recipe, etc.

• We want to see quality, whole meat, fish, or poultry in the top two ingredients; in canned foods, water is usually the first or second ingredient. We prefer to see meat first. We also like it when a nutritious meat, poultry, or fish broth is used in place of water.

• We would like to see whole grains and vegetables, rather than a series of reconstituted parts, i.e. “rice,” rather than “rice flour, rice bran, brewers rice,” etc.

• We award theoretical bonus points for foods that offer the date of manufacture (in addition to the usual “best if used by” date), nutrition information beyond the minimum required, and any organic ingredients. Sadly, these innovations are rare.

• Finally, be aware that there are no perfect foods. Not a single one meets every aspect of our selection criteria. We would suggest using price, local availability, and your own dog’s response to the food as your final guide.

Our Top 20 canned food selections appear on the next two pages (click here). Please note that the nutrition information in the chart is expressed as follows:

Crude Protein: Minimum percentage
Crude Fat: Minimum percentage
Crude Fiber: Maximum percentage
Moisture: Maximum percentage

-By Nancy Kerns

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