Features October 2001 Issue

Whole Dog Journal's 2001 Canned Dog Food Review

Many pet food makers offer their best products in a can.

What do you think of when you think of canned dog food? Many people unconsciously wrinkle their noses as they ponder this question, immediately associating the image with the distinctive aroma of canned meat. In addition, people frequently describe the contents of dog food cans as “glop,” an indistinguishable mash of uncertain meats and who-knows-what.

In general, people tend to have a better image of dry dog foods. Kibble is less aromatic and more visually appealing to us.

It’s important that you try them all to find
out which works best for your dog.

Despite our preference for neat and discrete pieces of kibble, the canned versions of most dog foods are frequently made with higher-quality ingredients, including fresh, whole meats, grains, and vegetables. Canned foods generally contain a higher percentage of meat than their dry counterparts; there is a limit to the amount of moist ingredients that dry food extruders can handle. (Let’s try to remember that dogs don’t eat grains in the wild; meat and vegetables are what they have been eating throughout their evolution.)

Also, canned foods generally 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. Because of the moist, fragrant nature of the meat-based contents, artificial flavoring and other palatants are rarely needed to attract dogs to otherwise unappealing food.

In addition, preservatives – which are ubiquitous in dry foods – are unnecessary and rarely seen in canned foods, due to the sealed, oxygen-free environment that a can offers. (Because they lack preservatives, canned foods must be kept refrigerated after opening, just like any other fresh food.)

WDJ’s selection criteria
We enjoy the task of reviewing canned foods annually, in no small part because of the changes we have witnessed in the industry in the past few years.

Increasingly, consumers are scrutinizing food labels (we hope we’ve had something to do with this!) and rejecting products with inferior ingredients. Sensitive to this trend, makers are slowly replacing artificial preservatives with natural ones, and eliminating artificial colors and flavors. They are also adding beneficial supplements such as vitamin C and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids to their formulas. All to the good.

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

• We eliminated all foods containing artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

• We rejected any food containing meat by-products or poultry by-products.

• We rejected any food containing fat or protein not identified by species. “Animal fat” is a euphemism for a low-quality, low-priced mix of fats of uncertain origin. “Meat by-products” can be from any mammal, or mix of mammals. These ingredients come to the food makers at bargain-bucket prices, and accordingly, may not have been handled as carefully as more valuable commodities.

• We looked for foods with whole meat, fish, or poultry as the first ingredient on the food labels (by law, ingredients are listed on the label by the total weight they contribute to the product). Water is necessary for the manufacturing process used to make canned foods, but in lower-quality products, water is usually the first 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 looked for the use of whole grains and vegetables, rather than a series of reconstituted parts, i.e. “rice,” rather than “rice flour, rice bran, brewers rice,” etc.

• We awarded 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.

Obscure foods
Our “Top Canned Food” selections are listed alphabetically on the next pages. Before you look, allow us to counter your first two protests! Every time we publish our food reviews, a certain number of neophyte readers contact us with one of the following two complaints. They’ll say either, “We’ve never heard of the foods you selected!” or “But which one of your selections is the best?”

We are sympathetic but firm.

To answer the first concern: Understand that, just as with human foods, the dog foods that are advertised, produced, and sold in the largest quantities in this country are just not the healthiest foods you can find; you know what we Mcmean? Of course you are more familiar with Alpo and Mighty Dog – or even Iams, Science Diet, and Eukanuba – than with our selections. Those are the foods you see on most grocery store shelves and in veterinary office waiting rooms. Health foods are harder to find.

And, just as with human health foods, there are far more low-quality commercial dog foods available to consumers than there are good- or high-quality foods. We’re just happy that there are high-quality foods being made for dogs; it wasn’t always so.

The catch is, good foods are expensive; high-quality ingredients cost the manufacturer more, and the price of the finished product will reflect this. Cheap foods may gladden the heart of consumers, but they have to realize that the contents of inexpensive cans will contain inferior ingredients.

We find it interesting that some companies make different “lines” of food, usually with radical differences in quality and price between them. We understand this practice from a business standpoint; the companies are simply offering products at every conceivable market position: cheap foods for people who don’t and won’t ever buy expensive foods, medium-priced and middling-quality foods for the market center, and expensive “premium” foods for those who are willing and able to afford them.

It’s hard for us to understand how these companies stand behind each product line as though they were equally proud of and confident about them all. But that’s beside the point, which is this: Don’t assume that all foods from a given company are created equal. Pay attention to the names we’ve used for our featured foods, and don’t stray!

Not rank-ordered
To answer the second concern – that we don’t rank-order our selections, but present them alphabetically – we say this: We hope you will find our selections useful when choosing foods for your dogs. But be aware that there are no perfect foods; this is why we cannot – will not – put our selections in order of preference.

All of our selections are high quality foods. We suggest using price, local availability, and, most importantly of all, your own dog’s response to the food as your final guide. If his health improves after changing foods, you’re on the right track. If his health declines, you need to change foods again, no matter how “good” we’ve proclaimed the food to be. All dogs are individuals, and what makes your Irish Setter shine may give your Spitz literal and figurative fits.

Final words
Along with our selections, we have listed only the first 10 ingredients of the foods; most contain quite a long list of vitamin and mineral supplements, and we don’t want to bore you with those. The most significant contents are within the first 10. When possible, we included information about the food’s caloric content, as reported by the food makers. Some of this information was readily available (although only one maker listed this on its product label); in other cases, the makers did not report this number to us.

For comparison’s sake, we also listed the ingredients of five very popular canned foods that we consider to be low quality. Compare the ingredients of foods on both lists; the differences between them should be quite obvious.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Commonly Used Canned Food Additives."
Click here to view "WDJ’s Top Canned Foods."

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