Features June 2013 Issue

“Complete and Balanced” Dehydrated Dog Foods

Dehydrated and freeze-dried dog food diets are second in quality only to healthy home-prepared diets for dogs.

[Updated March 22, 2018]

We haven’t reviewed dehydrated diets for quite some time – long enough that there have been quite a few additions to the pool of companies who make and sell this type of dog food. It’s increasingly popular, for a lot of reasons.

the honest kitchen human grade dog food

Lucy Postins, The Honest Kitchen founder and CEO, developed her products’ recipes in order to improve her own dogs’ health. She also fought a legal battle for years to earn the right to use the term “human grade ingredients” on THK’s product labels.

For one thing, “raw diets” are increasingly popular, too, and most of the products in this category incorporate raw animal proteins in their formulations. People who believe in the superiority of canine diets that include raw meat (often referred to as biologically appropriate or evolutionary diets) can use a dehydrated or freeze-dried food as a convenient replacement for their dogs’ fresh, home-prepared or commercial frozen raw diet. This is especially helpful when traveling with a raw-fed dog, or when the dog is left with a sitter who doesn’t want to deal with raw meat in its wet, bloody form. (One maker of dehydrated diets, ZiwiPeak, describes its products as “raw without the thaw.”)

When it’s dehydrated or freeze-dried, raw meat doesn’t seem so, well, raw. Most of us don’t think of beef jerky as raw meat, either, but it actually is. The drying process (and, in jerky, the use of salt and nitrates) “cures” the meat, altering its appearance and texture and concentrating its flavor – and, significantly, halting the biological action (decay) in the food – with less damage to the meat’s natural enzymes or vitamins than cooking temperatures would cause.

All the ingredients in canned food are cooked in the can. Some ingredients in kibble are actually cooked twice; meat “meals,” for example, are first subjected to rendering (essentially boiling, drying, and then grinding) and then extrusion (pushed through a tube under high pressure and subjected to a short blast of high-temperature steam) and drying. Plainly, the proteins in the meat ingredients are still nutritious after being extruded, but, raw food proponents allege, not nearly as healthful for canines as they were in their raw form.

Most of the other ingredients in freeze-dried or dehydrated foods are raw, too. Plus, they are very lightly processed, in comparison to the ingredients in other types of dog foods.

Raw diets aren’t for every dog or owner. Cooked foods may be safer for immune-compromised individuals. Some dogs digest cooked foods better.

Note: At least one maker of dehydrated foods (NRG USA) uses cooked meats in some of its products.

Benefits of Feeding Dehydrated Dog Food

In addition to being raw and lightly processed, dehydrated diets offer a number of other benefits to dogs – and their owners.

1. Dehyrdated dog food won't go bad (for a while).

Very low-moisture foods can be stored longer at room temperature (in unopened packages) without spoiling or rancidity than conventional kibble. Most dehydrated diets contain less moisture than conventional kibble, which generally contains about 10 percent moisture. The less moisture there is in a food, the less biological activity can occur.

2. Dehydrated food is lighter and more portable.

Dehydrated foods weigh less and are more compact than foods containing more moisture. This makes them especially well suited for travel. It also means they cost less to ship!

3. Raw dehydrated/freeze-dried food tastes amazing to dogs.

When rehydrated, these foods are highly palatable to most dogs. It may be due to the concentration of flavor in dehydrated food ingredients or their light processing. Dogs with poor appetites (like very senior or chronically ill dogs) may accept these foods when nothing else appeals.

4. Top-quality ingredients are the rule, not the exception, in dehydrated dog food.

As a generalization, the makers of these products are targeting the top end of the market, and have an extraordinary commitment to sourcing top-quality ingredients; in some cases, “human-quality” (“edible”) ingredients are used (though this claim can be made and verified by only one dehydrated dog food manufacturer: The Honest Kitchen).

The Different Categories of Dehydrated Dog Food

The dehydrated foods on the market are diverse in content, appearance, and form. Some contain grains and some don’t. Some are very high in protein and fat, and some compare in these respects to conventional kibble. Always check the “guaranteed analysis” when switching to a product in this category; they are so nutrient-dense that you may have to significantly reduce the volume of food that you feed your dog.

Most of these products are meant to be rehydrated with water before serving, although one (ZiwiPeak) contains a higher amount of moisture than kibble, and is fed without rehydration. One (DNA) comes in a cubed form, and reabsorbs a relatively small amount of water. Some are very powdery, which makes them turn into a sort of mush (or gruel, depending on how much water you add) when rehydrated. Some are powdery with large chunks of identifiable dehydrated meats, fruit, and/or vegetables – either an advantage (if your dog enjoys the contrast in taste and mouth-feel) or a disadvantage (if your dog seeks out only the chunks or mush and eschews the other). The products that come in dried “burger” or “medallion” form reconstitute in a form that most resembles an actual ground meat patty.

If you read the descriptions of each product, note that some contain “air-dried” or “dehydrated” (same thing) or freeze-dried ingredients. The difference in nutritional content of foods processed in either manner is negligible. However, dehydration alters the cellular structure of meats, fruits, and vegetables  more radically altering their appearance and taste than freeze-drying. Rehydrated, freeze-dried ingredients taste remarkably similar to their fresh, moist counterparts. Does this matter to your dog? You’d have to try different products to find out. Note that the freeze-drying process requires higher-tech, more expensive machines, making the cost of foods that contain freeze-dried ingredients quite a bit higher.

Because the cost of these products is so high, we’d imagine that few people feed them full-time, especially if their dog or dogs are large. I calculated the cost of feeding some of these products to my 70-pound, active dog at more than $200 a month – more than what it would cost to feed a home-prepared diet. Personally, I’d most likely use them only for a small dog, or on a short-term basis while traveling, as a special treat, to jump-start a sick dog’s recovery, or to extend the life of a chronically ill dog.

"Human-Quality" Dog Food Ingredients

As we’ve discussed many times in WDJ, there is only one way that a company can legally claim that its dog food contains ingredients that are “human quality” (the legal term is “edible,” though of course regulators mean only “human edible” in this context): If it is made in a manufacturing facility that contains only edible ingredients. The presence of a single “inedible” ingredient in a manufacturing facility, by law, would re-classify every ingredient and product present at that location as “pet food.” By law, you can take a refrigerated truckload of the world’s finest, freshest, cleanest filet mignon to a facility that makes pet food, but the second the truck drives onto the facility’s property (or the moment the truck’s door is opened, accounts vary), none of that meat can be called edible or human-quality again.

This is frustrating to the pet food makers who genuinely use ingredients of that quality, and to consumers who want proof – a certain way to verify – the true quality and provenance of the ingredients in their dog’s very expensive food. But unless a food company wants to use only edible ingredients, and have its products made in a facility that uses only edible ingredients, jump through a million bureaucratic hoops to demonstrate completion of these requirements to the regulators in every single state – and price its products accordingly – it can’t say it uses “human-quality” ingredients. Only one company that we know of (the Honest Kitchen) can make this legal claim for its products, which are made in a human food manufacturing facility in Illinois (which also makes human soup mixes and other human foods that contain dehydrated human food ingredients).

Pet food makers who do use “edible” meats and other ingredients in their products sometimes resort to using code words to give consumers a hint about their ingredient quality. They have to be subtle, though, because if they are too overt, state feed control officials can hit them with a warning, fine, and/or stop-sale order.

Here’s the problem with that approach: Because it’s illegal, it’s not verifiable! And because it can’t be confirmed (say, by checking the manufacturer’s registration as a human food manufacturing facility), any company can slyly hint about their alleged “human-quality” ingredients, whether they really use them or not.

If ingredient quality is critical to you – if you insist on and are willing to pay for foods that contain only “edible” ingredients, your only sure options are to home-prepare your dog’s food with ingredients you buy from human food sources, or to buy products from The Honest Kitchen.

Alternatively, you can engage in conversation with representatives of pet food companies who make what appear to be (based on their ingredients lists) very high-quality foods, and ask them about the provenance of their ingredients. If they claim (or hint) that some of their ingredients are “human-grade,” “just like the ones you buy in the supermarket,” “USDA,” or some other code-phrase, ask them to discuss this further – and do a gut-check on their reply. It’s all you’ll really have to go on.

Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ.

Comments (9)

Hi Janet
I dont know where you live but pets 4life is a very good food using human grade resturaunt quality ingredients.Also look in to tolden farms. These are canadian products all sourced from local farmers etc all hormone free.The fat content will vary depending on what you feed.Duck will have less than chicken etc.
I did find that nv instinct (american product) was higher in fat than these, and much more expensive to feed.While I did like this product line, I wouln,t use their rabbit because it is sourced from china,this also makes me wonder about other ingredients in this food.
Hope this helps.

Posted by: kim w | October 27, 2013 7:27 AM    Report this comment

Doesn't WDJ bother to actually READ the comments section which THEY provide to their readers? It would appear not IF the fact that not one single query posed here by their own reading public has yet been answered...and this is all posed about the June issue 4 months ago as it's now mid-October! Why should it take 4 months for WDJ to answer some simple questions such as the obvious typo asked about twice above? Appears like both the proofreader of this issue as well as whomever's job it is to answer the public's questions about articles might be asleep on the job?! Not good:-(

Posted by: meeasm | October 18, 2013 12:15 PM    Report this comment

There is another company producing human grade dog food! Butchers Feast is made with all human grade ingredients, in a USDA supervised human food production facility in Vermont, from locally sourced, Grade A poultry or Prime beef. No artificial preservatives, grains, fillers, soy, meals, or byproducts. It meets the AAFCO requirements for a complete and balanced diet. Every ingredient is listed on the label. I encourage you to review this product!

Posted by: Carolyn Z | August 7, 2013 4:52 AM    Report this comment

My question is the same as Kimberlie's. 'However, dehydration alters the cellular structure of meats, fruits, and vegetables much more than dehydrating, more radically altering their appearance and taste than freeze-drying.' It seems like someone reformatted that sentence to get better flow or something, and inadvertently made it illogical. Is it supposed to say freeze-drying twice?

Posted by: Ingrid B | June 8, 2013 9:22 PM    Report this comment

I think there is a typo or error in this sentence: "However, dehydration alters the cellular structure of meats, fruits, and vegetables much more than dehydrating, more radically altering their appearance and taste than freeze-drying." How can dehydration alter the cellular structure much more than dehydrating - aren't dehydration and dehydrating the same thing? What was the article meant to say?

Posted by: kimberlie y | June 6, 2013 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Jennifer -

The Guaranteed Analysis panel of dry products, whether freeze-dried or kibble, simply means that the moisture content has been removed -- this allows for a direct comparison between DRY products. In other words, since both kibble and freeze-dried raw are DRY, a direct comparison of the G.A. panel can be made. (I am not trying to compare FROZEN raw to dry kibble, as Frozen raw patties still have the moisture in them.)

Here's an example G.A. panel from a Freeze-Dried Raw product:
Guaranteed Analysis:
crude protein min 37.0%
crude fat min 35.0%
crude fiber max 4.0%
moisture max 5.0%
Calorie Content: 5,628 kcal/kg (calculated); 75 kcal per patty

In comparison, here's a G.A. panel from a grain-free kibble:
Crude protein (min.) 38 %
Crude fat (min.) 18 %
Crude fiber (max.) 5 %
Moisture (max.) 10 %
Metabolizable Energy is 3800 kcal/kg (456 kcal per 250ml/120g cup)

So my question still stands - why does commercial raw have such a high fat content compared to kibble?

Posted by: PY | June 4, 2013 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Janet Y:

Trying to compare kibble to raw food is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Not only are the nutritional levels, but also the actual format of the food is very different. It's important to keep in mind that raw and cooked foods do not digest the same way, either--raw is much more bio-available, so it's easier for a carnivore's body to digest.

When looking at the nutrient levels in our freeze-dried, it's important to keep in mind that the levels in our freeze-dried look relatively high simply to moisture content. Stella & Chewy's frozen and freeze-dried dinners are identical in formulation. When the moisture is removed from the frozen to create the freeze-dried, it essentially becomes concentrated. Once rehydrated with warm water, per our recommendations, the levels return to those found in the frozen dinners.

Please feel free to contact Stella & Chewy's directly if you have any additional questions. Thank you! www.stellaandchewys.com

Posted by: Jennifer S | June 4, 2013 12:44 PM    Report this comment

I appreciate the review of dehydrated and freeze-dried dog foods as that is what I feed my dog when traveling. This article confirmed that these foods, while expensive, are indeed a good option. But what happened to the reviews of commercial raw frozen foods? The last review was in November 2010. Canned and dry foods are reviewed annually. Commercial raw frozen foods should be reviewed annually as well. This article indicates that "complete and balanced" dehydrated and freeze-dried dog foods are second in quality only to healthy home-prepared diets." As a group. where would commercial raw frozen diets be ranked? I had always assumed commercial raw frozen diets were second only to a complete and balanced home-prepared diet. Also, I know you can't include every possible produce on a list, but I'm confused as to why Primal isn't in list of dehydrated and freeze-dried dog foods. Primal was included in the last review of commercial raw frozen foods. Does that mean Primal freeze-dried is not recommended? Is Primal frozen no longer recommended?

Posted by: Carol S | June 2, 2013 5:35 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the review of these products. I was wondering if you could please comment on the fat content of commercial raw patties (such as from Stella and Chewy's, Primal (which wasn't on your list?), and Nature's Variety). The majority of these products are quite high in fat (up to 50% dry weight) compared to kibble (typically less than 20%). Is there any reason as to why raw diets are so much higher in fat than in kibble? I'd like to feed my pup these very convenient commercial raw patties, but their fat content concerns me. Thanks in advance for any insights you might have on this.

Posted by: PY | June 1, 2013 6:04 PM    Report this comment

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