There are a variety of terms used on pet food labels that appear to indicate the quality of the product. These terms are primarily used on dog and cat food labels, but may apply to other companion animal foods as well. Terms such as "generic," "premium," and even "super premium" are among those commonly used, as are "natural," "holistic," "organic," and "grain-free." But what do these terms really mean? Often, the definition is unclear even to pet food experts. This article attempts to provide some explanation of what to expect with the most common terms used on pet food labels.
"Popular" brand pet foods are those that are marketed to sell in grocery stores and supermarkets. The companies that produce these foods strive to produce a product that is highly palatable to the pet, while at the same time being visibly and economically attractive to the owner.
Popular pet foods may not have a concrete formulation. Instead, they may use variable formulation. Variable formulation indicates that the ingredients used to provide a specific nutrient vary from bag to bag. Popular pet food manufacturers substitute nutrient sources based on ingredient availability and cost. For example, one bag of dog food may have poultry meal as the primary protein source, but months later it may have cereal grain as the primary protein source. Owners should be aware that the guaranteed analysis on the bag of their pet’s food will not change with variable formulation. However, the ingredient list may be altered without notification.
Variable formulation is one reason why popular pet food brands lead to digestibility and palatability problems in pets. Because ingredients have the potential to change from one batch of pet food to another, pets may react negatively to a new bag of food from the same brand. Regardless, popular pet foods tend to have a higher quality and digestibility than generic or private-label pet foods. Popular pet foods are formulated to meet or exceed American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines and must be nutritionally complete and balanced for the intended life stage.
Generally, consumers feel premium brand pet foods are formulated to provide dogs and cats superior nutrition during different life stages. However, it is important to realize there are no guidelines or regulations for a pet food to be labeled as "premium." Premium pet foods are marketed to attract owners who are dedicated to providing the best nutrition for their pet’s life stages. Many premium brand pet foods are sold only in specialty pet stores, feed stores, and veterinary clinics.
Companies that manufacture premium pet foods formulate diets that relate to the nutritional requirements of an animal. For example, many premium brand companies offer foods that are specially formulated for growing puppies, large- and small-breed dogs, lactating and gestating bitches, and geriatric animals.
Most premium brand pet foods are produced using fixed formulation. This means that the producers strive to maintain a constant ingredient list, regardless of market price or availability. Additionally, most premium pet foods undergo feeding studies using AAFCO guidelines. These feeding studies provide owners the ease of mind that their pets’ food has undergone extensive feeding studies to ensure the nutritional adequacy of the product. Because of this testing and the fixed formulation, premium pet foods are generally more expensive. However, these pet foods are higher in quality and are usually fed in smaller portions.
"Super premium" is another term consumers may hear to describe a pet food that has no real definition and is not regulated in its use. Super premium pet foods are thought to be slightly higher in quality than premium pet foods. Many super premium pet foods are manufactured without the use of synthetic preservatives. Instead, many corporations will use a natural preservative such as vitamin C or E. Super premium pet foods are also generally free from artificial colors or flavors.
Similar to premium brand pet foods, super premium foods are generally more expensive. This is because they are extremely nutrient dense. This means that pets are only required to consume a small portion of the food to achieve their nutrient requirement. Although super premium pet foods are more expensive, the smaller portion size and high quality may help to balance out the expense.
"Generic" pet foods are those that do not carry a brand name and are available commercially. Manufacturers of generic pet foods are dedicated to providing a low-cost product to the consumer. To make a low-cost pet food, lower quality and inexpensive food ingredients may be used. Research has shown that generic foods have noticeably poor digestibility because the ingredients used to produce the pet food are of poor quality. Perhaps the most important concern of generic dog foods is that they may be formulated based on calculations, not actual AAFCO feeding trials.
In contrast to generic foods, "private-label" pet foods are packaged under the brand name of a given grocery or other commercial store. Private-label pet foods may also mimic the labeling and brand name of popular or premium dog foods. In combination with low pricing, the eye appeal of private-label brands is the primary reason why they are fed to pets. These diets, like other commercial pet foods, must be formulated to meet or exceed AAFCO nutrient guidelines.
When referencing pet foods, the AAFCO definition of natural is “a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis, or fermentation but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”
The term natural can be used to describe a pet food when all of the ingredients used in the diet meet this definition with the exception of synthetic vitamins, minerals, and trace nutritional additives that may have a disclaimer indicating that ingredient is not natural.
Natural ingredients are those derived from plants or animals and can include items such as fresh meats, poultry by-product meal, meat and bone meal, whole ground corn, corn gluten meal, and wheat bran. The natural label does not provide an indication of ingredient quality, only ingredient source.
A term often used interchangeably with natural is "holistic." Holistic is commonly understood to mean something that relates to the whole, so it is often used to describe things that relate to good overall health for the body and the mind. However, there is no definition for what holistic must mean in terms of pet foods. In fact, it may mean one thing to one pet food company and something quite different to another. Often, holistic diets are diets considered to contain primarily natural ingredients, but this is not always the case. This term is primarily for marketing purposes and offers no information as to quality or source of ingredients.
"Organic" foods for humans are certified as organic by the National Organic Program (NOP). These foods should not be exposed to synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, or antibiotics during production, should not be from genetically modified organisms, and should meet other guidelines for storage, transport, and production.
Pet foods do not fall under NOP regulation. There have been recommendations that pet foods labeled as organic should follow NOP regulations, and some do. However, even with an organic label, pet foods offer no guarantee that it has undergone certification like organic foods for humans do, and they may not be produced with the same guidelines. Pet foods do not contain the organic seal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as certified organic human foods do. AAFCO recommends that pet foods follow the same labeling guidelines as organic human foods, but it is not required.
A grain-free pet food is formulated without the use of cereal grains. In many pet foods, one or more grains are included to provide starch, energy, and other nutrients. Examples of grains used as pet food ingredients include corn, rice, sorghum, wheat, barley, and oats. Starch is important in dry pet food diets, as it helps the kibble maintain its shape. Because grain-free pet foods are produced without the use of grains, producers must find alternative sources of starch. Potato and tapioca are two examples of starch sources widely used in grain-free pet foods. In general, feeding a grain-free diet does not guarantee improved nutrition or digestibility for your dog or cat. The ingredient composition of the diet is important in determining the quality of your pet’s food. Choosing a diet with high-quality ingredients will be more digestible and better for your pet than a diet with a lower digestibility. There are some benefits to including whole grains in pet foods (particularly for dogs), just as there are in human foods.
There are a variety of terms and categories used for pet foods on the market. Some of these labels have no clear meaning, while others fall under specific regulation guidelines. Being an informed consumer will help you find the ideal pet food for your dog or cat.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D. - University of Nebraska-Lincoln