“No” Power – Interpreting a Dry Dog Food Product Label

By highlighting what their pet foods do NOT contain, some companies unfairly stigmatize certain ingredients.

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While researching this year’s dry dog food review (which starts on the facing page), I was struck by the overwhelming prevalence of two big trends in marketing and formulation. I’m not sure any pet food company is immune from these tactics – and I’m not yet convinced they will prove a benefit to dogs or dog owners.

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The first tactic is the “No!” approach. You know, “No Corn, wheat, or soy!” How tame those claims seem now. I’ve seen dog food bags and pet food company literature that proudly proclaims products free of beef, dairy products, eggs, pork, potatoes, and yeast.

The problem with each of these “no” statements is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those ingredients. In some of the latter cases, the pet food maker is not actually denigrating those ingredients; its trying to help the consumer identify products that contain less-common ingredients. However, the “no” approach plants a seed of doubt in the minds of many consumers. “Wait; why are potatoes bad?”

Corn, wheat, and soy have been historically overused in low-quality pet foods, in lieu of better-quality ingredients. But that doesn’t mean that the presence of any corn, wheat, or soy in a food is cause for immediate dismissal. Each contains nutrients that can be of some value when the ingredient is used in moderation in a food that is bursting with higher quality ingredients. I don’t want to see any of them in the top five or so ingredients in a food – but the appearance of one of them in an otherwise compelling food does not cause me to drop it in horror.

I also saw products labeled as having no added hormones, added steroids, added sugar, antibiotics, by-products, fillers, genetically modified organisms (GMO), and grain fractions. My favorite? “No potentially allergenic ingredients.” (I could write a book about how that one aggravates me. Anything can be an allergen for a given individual. There are dogs who are allergic to dust. How can anything be free of “potential allergens”?)

There is a valid concern behind each of these statements, and perhaps even a valuable service offered by a product that protects dogs from the threat implied by each. But for any but the most educated consumers, these claims are meaningless and confusing – especially when market rivals publish counter-claims; you know, one company’s “filler” is another company’s “beneficial fiber.” In my opinion, unless these claims are explained by educational material (and supported with valid research), they do more harm to the industry than good.

The other big trend this year is related, I guess: Grain-free (or gluten-free) foods. Everybody has one, and some companies have a bunch. Suddenly, the premium pet food niche is all about a low-glycemic index diet.

There is no doubt that this is a good thing for many dogs – but it’s not good news for every dog. While some improve and thrive on a grain-free diet, some dogs wither. And while it’s true that grains are not a natural part of an evolutionary diet for canines, many dogs can utilize them without problems.

I’m pleased that so much research and innovation is going on in the pet food industry, and I’m happy to have lots of grain-free formulas from which to choose. But let’s educate dog owners so they know to try different products for different dogs, notice the results, and continue with what works best for each individual.

-Nancy Kerns

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