Features April 1998 Issue

Are Premium Dog Foods Worth It?

Only three brands would make our buy list; others fall well short.


Choosing the right food for your dog is an important task, with both short-and long-term consequences. Many veterinarians have come to believe that the best foods for a dog are those that are closest to his ancestral diet: raw meat, in all different cuts and varieties, and a sprinkling of herbal or vegetable matter. But for many of us, providing that kind of diet is inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive. So, for those of us who have gotten used to the ease of feeding dried dog food out of a bag, WDJ can help you become an informed consumer.

This article is confined to a discussion of so-called “premium” dog foods, a classification we’ve established that includes those foods that are priced at $1 dollar per pound and up, and supposedly contain ingredients that surpass in quality the lower-priced brands. Our analysis found that there are big differences in the premium category. High prices don’t necessarily mean high nutritional value. And some so-called “premium” vendors still use artificial preservatives and coloring. Still, we found some very good buys at acceptable prices!

Premium Dog Foods

How do you choose? You can’t begin until
you’ve read the tiny print of the ingredients
list, and learned the difference between, say,
'beef' and 'meat and bone meal.'

Why quality is important

Not all dried foods are created equal. Experts in canine nutrition, like experts in human nutrition, differ in opinion about what is best, and accordingly, there are dog foods of every conceivable combination on the market. How do you choose? Informed decisions rest on several factors, including the food content’s type, quality, and digestibility. Cost, too, plays a role. Dog foods with good quality ingredients are simply more expensive than foods containing only by-products.

How can you determine whether the ingredients are of the best quality? Admittedly, it’s hard, since the regulations that dictate what food products may and may not go into dog food have largely been made up by the pet food makers. Practically no food item or by-product is too disgusting, diseased, or rotten to be passed over for the manufacture of dog food. Condemned parts and animals that are rejected for human foods are often re-routed to pet food manufacturers.

In fact, there is a phrase, “4D,” for the types of meat that make their way from human food manufacturers to the pet food makers. It means, any meat that is dead, dying, diseased, or disabled. Even animals that have died and have begun to decompose are used. “Meat and bone meal” sounds innocuous, but it is primarily composed of meat that is too far gone to be considered for inclusion into pet foods that call for “meat.” Instead, it is sterilized and rendered, to be born anew as “meat and bone meal,” a major component of many pet foods.

What kind of nutrients, if any, can possibly survive such a journey? Not many, but don’t worry, they’ll add protein from cheaper sources, like corn gluten, soybean meal, and rice gluten, and then “fortify” it with vitamins and minerals, preserve it with artificial preservatives, make it better looking to the owner with artificial colors, and spray on a last-minute coating of vegetable oil to encourage dogs to eat it.

Fresh, wholesome meat and whole grains contain all the nutrients that dogs need, but it’s very hard to find dog foods that contain those things and nothing else. Pet food makers argue that it’s very hard to make a pet food with just those things and get pet owners to pay for it; the price would be too exorbitant. Some have started to move toward less-chemical laden foods with higher quality ingredients, but the shift in consciousness required is so huge, that these efforts are regarded by many holistic veterinary practitioners as next to useless. (See, for example, Dr. Christina Chambreau’s assessment of even the “premium” commercial dog foods.)

You’ve got to start somewhere
Here’s where WDJ draws the line. While some admirable souls in the trenches of holistic medicine insist that only raw meat will do, we recognize that many readers want to feed dried foods – and that some guidance may be helpful. At a minimum, WDJ recommends that you reject any dog food containing any of the following, each of which has been implicated in canine health disorders:

• Artificial color.

• Artificial preservatives like BHA, BHT, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrate (used for dual purposes, preservative and coloring) and especially, ethoxyquin.

• Sugars and sweeteners like corn syrup, sucrose, and ammoniated glycyrrhizin (added to attract dogs to otherwise unappealing fare).

• Anything with the term “flavor” in the ingredients list (like sugar, this indicates the contents doesn’t have enough of its own good flavor – not the hallmark of quality ingredients).

• Propylene glycol, which is used to keep certain foods moist.

• Foods with corn (one of the least expensive grains available to food makers) and/or corn by-products listed more than once in the first five ingredients.

Consider, too, the types of meat in the food. If a food has one or more questionable source of protein (see the link for “What’s in the Bag: A glossary of dog food ingredients.”), it should be rejected. Foods that have whole meat (listed simply as lamb, chicken, beef, etc.) in the top three ingredients are recommended.

Look for whole foods like rice, wheat, and eggs, and foods that are kept fresh with natural preservatives like vitamin C and E (often listed as mixed-tocopherols).

Also, look for something called AAFCO approval; it’s not a very tough standard, but it’s the only one for dog food there is (the standard is fully explained in “Who’s in charge here?”).

And – we can dream on, because we have yet to see a food that offers it – if you were ever to find a dog food that offered certified organic meats, grains, and vegetables, we’d suggest you buy a lifetime supply and put it in a refrigerated vault.

Test your knowledge
Below, you’ll find a list of 13 dogs foods commonly known to the average dog owner. With the exception of Kibbles ‘N Bits, they are considered “premium” foods by the pet superstores (and priced accordingly), and a few are what must be considered “superpremium,” formulated and marketed toward those looking for the very best. Kibbles ‘N Bits represents the high end of low-cost foods, and we’ve included it for comparison purposes.

We suggest you look over the ingredients (we’ve listed the first 10 ingredients only) and nutrition information. Then, though you’ll probably be able to take on this task when you’re done comparing) we’ll tell you which ones we like, which ones we don’t, and why.

You’ll notice four basic values are also presented for each food: the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture. Federal law requires that these values are printed on all dog food labels.

The percentage of protein in a food must always be viewed in context with the actual protein sources in the food. It’s possible for the manufacturers to “load” a food with crude proteins that are virtually indigestible, and thus, useless to the dog. If the protein level of a certain food is higher than average, look for its source in the list of ingredients. Rich in essential amino acids, meats are considered the best source of protein.

The amount of protein and fat a food has should be roughly proportional, since there are metabolic interactions between the two. The more protein a food has, the more fat it should have.

The amount of crude fiber and moisture in each dog food is expressed on the product labels and in our chart on the next page as a maximum percentage. Crude fiber is basically the indigestible matter in the food. Moisture is the amount of water in the food; all foods need a certain amount of moisture to be palatable.

We’ve arranged our sampling of dry dog foods in the chart below according to their price per pound, since the cost of the food affects and informs most dog owners more than any other factor.

Each brand of food is packaged in a variety of sizes; we’ve selected similar weights to compare prices. Just as when buying human food in bulk, these dog foods are less expensive if bought in larger amounts.

Where possible, we sampled the same type of food, choosing each company’s lamb-based product, so you could compare differing but equivalent formulations. Again, before you make buying decisions, review the terms defined on the next page. Your opinion of some foods may change when you learn the meaning of some common phrases on dog food labels. For instance, why is the word “Formula” in so many dog food titles? As you’ll find, it means that the ingredient or combination of ingredients named in the title constitute anywhere from 25 percent to 94 percent of the contents. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know whether the total is closer to 25 or 94 percent.

WDJ Recommends:

This food is our clear-cut winner, based on small and simple list of top quality ingredients. In fact, its advertising boasts the irrefutable fact that California Natural has the shortest list of ingredients in the industry. This food contains no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, and is affordable to boot. It can be found in selected health food stores and independent pet stores. to find a dealer near you, call (800) 532-7261.

Another top-quality food with less than the top price. At risk of limiting their sales, the maker of this food does not make it available to pet store shoppers. Instead, it must be ordered directly from a company representative and is shipped directly to you from the factory, ensuring the ultimate in freshness. The manufacturer claims their ingredients are all human-grade foods. For information, call (408) 464-1178.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to pick the most expensive food or the one with the highest protein levels as a candidate for quality ingredients. The maker claims the chicken used is human-quality and free of growth hormones. So far, so good. But why so much corn? To locate a local distributor, call (800) 874-3221.

Not Recommended

It’s not fair to compare this with the rest; it’s not considered a premium food. But after the product was called a “winner” in Consumer Reports February 1998 issue for being the unanimous favorite of their panel of test dogs, we had to comment. In a taste test of people on the street, who wouldn’t choose a sugar-filled candy bar over a nutritionally complete granola bar? It sure doesn’t mean you ought to feed that person candy bars from now on.

Kibbles ‘N Bits is the canine equivalent of Twinkies. The ingredients are led off with corn, and each of the animal-protein ingredients are very low quality: beef and bone meal, animal fat, animal digest. Water and corn syrup also appear in the top 10 ingredients, explaining the high moisture content; propylene glycol keeps it sealed in.

A much healthier concoction, but we’re not crazy about two things. First, this was the only dried dog food we could find that opted not to pursue feeding trials approved by AAFCO. Instead, its manufacturer sought the lesser AAFCO approval and had its nutrient requirements verified in the lab only. That, and its scarcity of animal proteins (it does contain fish meal, fairly low on its contents list), make us wonder about its palatability. This lack of meat could be used as a tool to market this food to owners of dogs with meat allergies, but interestingly, its packaging makes no note of this absence. To its credit, the food contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

Despite its high price, often indicating quality ingredients, this food features a nutritionally empty vegetable filler (beet pulp), two questionable meat sources (lamb digest and animal fat), and salt (another taste-tempting ingredient) in the top 10. Topped off with not one but three artificial preservatives – on behalf of our dogs, we’ll decline.


Also With This Article
Click here to view the dog food guide.
Click here to view "Whats in the Bag?"
Click here to view "Who's in Charge Here?"


-By Nancy Kerns


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