Nutrition Unleashed: Decoding Pet Food Buzzwords 

Written by: 

Dr. Danielle Conway, DVM ACVIM Nutrition Board Eligible, CVA, VSMT  

Nutrition board-eligible veterinarian with extensive experience in integrative medicine and nutrition.  

Paw Prints


When choosing pet food, a useful approach is to evaluate whether a company might be overstating the capabilities of their product. Are they relying on clickbait or scare tactics for sales, or are they highlighting the genuine qualities that differentiate their product? Often, terms in pet nutrition are used in marketing without a clear understanding of their meanings. Below, we offer a breakdown of "natural" and "organic," two frequently used terms, to help you make informed decisions about how to best feed your companion, free from fear and misleading marketing.

What You Need to Know About Organic and Natural Ingredients in Pet Food

Organic farming and raising animals can benefit both the animals and the environment. However, it's more important to know where the meat or ingredients come from rather than just looking for an "organic" label, because not all organic ingredients are the same. For instance, some organic practices prioritize profit over animal welfare. Most people don't realize that to be labeled organic, animals must never have been treated with antibiotics in their lifetime. This becomes a problem if an animal gets sick, particularly with a bacterial infection. If the animal is treated with antibiotics to cure their illness, they cannot be considered organic anymore. Their options might be to be sold as non-organic, to be euthanized, or worse, to suffer until they die a painful death. Most antibiotics approved for use in food animals do not have residues that stay in meat and milk forever; there are specific waiting periods that ensure residues are cleared from the tissue. But in the organic system, there's no such waiting period—it's all or nothing.

That's why it's crucial to know your farmers and understand where your meat comes from. This knowledge is important not just for ethical reasons but also for the quality of the product. Studies have shown that well-cared-for animals are less stressed and produce more nutritious and better-tasting meat.

ButcherBox For Pets is a great example of a pet food company that cares about the well-being of animals, farmers, and the planet. As a Certified B Corporation, we meet the highest standards of social and environmental impact. 

Decoding 'Natural' Labels in Pet Food Industry

When it comes to pet food, AAFCO defines "Natural" as any product where all ingredients, except for vitamins and minerals, are not chemically made or modified. However, companies can stretch this definition of "natural" to fit their marketing needs. Some even engage in "Natural washing”—similar to "Green washing" in human products—to attract customers without actually improving the quality of their products. These practices can be harmful as they may compromise on quality to reduce costs. I prefer the term "ingredient-centric" over "natural" because it's more specific and less likely to be misused. Ingredient-centric brands claim their products are free from synthetic nutrients and artificial preservatives, and they try to use whole food ingredients instead of processed ones. While there are some good quality 'natural' and ingredient-centric brands, many lack the necessary expertise and resources to make a truly high-quality product. ButcherBox For Pets Premium Nutrition is an exception, known for producing excellent ingredient-centric pet food.

Organic pet food is very rare and usually very expensive and hard to find. Thanks to ButcherBox For Pets' special relationships with farmers and meat suppliers, they are among the few who can offer high-quality organic meats in their pet products.

The Role of Byproducts in Pet Nutrition 

Nutrition myths often start with people who lack a deep understanding of clinical nutrition, and these myths stick around because pet owners don’t fully understand some complex terms defined by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials).

AAFCO defines byproducts as: “Secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.” This means byproducts can be secondary products from any primary food product source. There may be more than one byproduct from processing a single food product.

    Byproducts are parts of animals that aren’t typically eaten by people in the U.S. but are rich in nutrients. These parts are usually what predators eat first and are considered delicacies in other parts of the world. Byproducts are great for pet food because they're nutritious, easy to digest, tasty, and they don’t take away from the human food supply. Using byproducts in pet food is also good for the environment as it helps use every part of the animal responsibly.

    Nutritional Benefits and Misconceptions of Byproducts

    As we mentioned in a previous post about misunderstood pet ingredients, meat meals are often misunderstood and feared more than they should be. Their quality really depends on the source and quality of the meat used. It's crucial to trust the company that makes the food. For example, in our ButcherBox For Pets, they use the same high-quality organic chicken that's in our meat boxes for humans. They take out parts like the chicken breast and other cuts favored by humans, and use the remaining meat and organs to make their nutritious pet food. This way, they’re not only feeding their human customers with premium organic chicken, but also providing our companion animals with a wholesome meal that respects the animal and doesn't waste any part of it. Just like how indigenous peoples sustainably used every part of the animals they hunted, they strive to feed ourselves and our pets in a way that's healthy without depleting our natural resources.

    "Human Grade" and "Companion Grade": Marketing vs. Reality

    I believe the term "human grade" is overused and misleading. Often, when pet food companies say their product is "human grade," they mean it uses the same ingredients found in the human food supply and is made in a USDA-regulated facility. This is problematic for several reasons. Dogs and cats are not humans; they have unique needs and preferences that differ significantly from ours. In many ways, pets excel beyond humans—they don't have egos and show genuine, unconditional love. They also have specific dietary requirements. Instead of using the term 'human grade,' we suggest 'companion grade.' This term reflects a commitment to the well-being of both your pet and the environment, ensuring the best care for your beloved companion.

    "Purchasing human grade pet food does not ensure healthier or better quality food for your pet.  It is better to focus on criteria that more objectively identify pet foods with high quality ingredients and excellent quality control standards and made by companies with significant nutritional expertise." Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVIM (Nutrition)

    Another issue with using only human food inspection standards for dog and cat food is that these standards differ from what pet food requires. For example, the FDA allows a certain amount of salmonella contamination in chicken sold in grocery stores—up to 30% of chicken can have salmonella. This is because it's expected that cooking the chicken to 160°F will kill any harmful bacteria. However, pet food should have zero tolerance for salmonella because pets don't cook their food. Applying FDA or USDA human food standards to pet food would allow more salmonella than what is safe for pets. Therefore, pet food needs its own unique quality control measures to ensure it's free of pathogens, heavy metals, and other harmful residues and contaminants.

    This approach also highlights the environmental benefits of using whole prey and acknowledges the natural advantages this provides, much like the diets of ancestral wild animals.

    The Importance of Whole Food and Balanced Diets for Pets

    As an integrative nutritionist, I  support feeding whole foods to pets, but it must be done correctly. An unbalanced homemade diet can lead to many health issues, which veterinary nutritionists often need to address. Creating a complete and balanced diet that boosts your pet's health can be both time-consuming and costly. It requires precise measurements of ingredients, strict following of a recipe developed by a veterinary nutritionist, and meticulous attention to how the food is processed and cooked, as these factors significantly impact the nutritional value of the final product. Keep an eye out, as ButcherBox For Pets and I are working hard  to provide options for members who prefer this feeding method for their pets. 

    Meanwhile, their Premium Nutrition Dog Food remains an excellent and convenient choice, offered at a more affordable price. It’s the first of its kind in the market to combine high protein, optimal balance of fiber, low fat, and antioxidants. 

    Understanding Your Pet's Dietary Needs: Carnivore vs. Omnivore

    Your dog is an omnivorous carnivore, meaning they eat both plant and animal-based foods, while your cat is an obligate carnivore, meaning they must eat meat to survive. Dogs have several anatomical, physiological, and biochemical differences that allow them to digest a variety of foods, not just meat. This makes them more carnivorous than humans but still omnivores. It's incorrect to label dogs as obligate carnivores. Cats, however, are true obligate carnivores and need much higher levels of amino acids and protein than dogs. They also have different metabolic needs, requiring specific nutrients that their bodies cannot produce on their own. This includes certain B vitamins, vitamin A, specific essential amino acids, and certain fatty acids.

    Debunking Myths: Is Your Dog a Wolf or an Omnivorous Carnivore?

    Simply put, your dog is not a wolf. Yes, dogs evolved from wolves and share some genetic material with them, but all living beings share a significant amount of their DNA with each other, so this isn't a strong argument. Dogs diverged from wolves about 6,000 years ago, but since then, humans have extensively bred dogs to enhance specific traits. This breeding has made modern dogs very different from their wolf ancestors. For instance, some dog breeds, like the popular French Bulldog, can't give birth naturally and require cesarean sections.

    Wild wolves typically live about 6 years, but we expect our pet dogs to live much longer and provide them with better medical care and nutrition than wolves in the wild. I often joke with clients who are curious about putting their dogs on a "wild" diet by suggesting we drop their dogs in the woods for three days to see if they survive while maintaining their weight and health. It's a humorous way to make a serious point: your dog is not a wolf. Your dog is a unique and wonderful living being that deserves care tailored to its needs as a domesticated animal. After all, dogs are great companions, arguably better suited to living with humans than wolves.

    The Controversy Over Grain-Free Diets

    Grain-free feeding is often more about marketing than actual health benefits when it comes to kibble. Grain-free kibble simply swaps out grains for other sources of carbohydrates. In fact, many grain-free foods actually have similar or even higher carbohydrate levels compared to their grain-containing counterparts. This happens because making kibble without some starch is difficult; starch helps keep the kibble pieces together. Also, kibbles with low starch content are hard to make and can make it tough for dogs to maintain healthy digestion and stool consistency.

    Addressing Myths About Grain Allergies and Pet Diets

    Another reason some pet owners avoid grains is the belief that they are highly allergenic or cause inflammation. However, these claims are not supported by research or clinical evidence. Food allergies in pets are usually triggered by proteins, and animal proteins, which are higher in protein content, are far more likely to cause allergies than grains. In other words, your dog or cat is much more likely to be allergic to a protein source than to grains or other carbohydrates. Additionally, pet food allergies differ from human allergies as they require continuous exposure to develop. A dog or cat cannot be allergic to something they have never encountered.

    Food allergy tests are also not reliable for diagnosing allergies or sensitivities in dogs and cats despite their availability. They are generally a waste of money and do not provide clear diagnostic results. If you suspect your pet has a food sensitivity or allergy, it's best to consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist. They might suggest an elimination diet to accurately identify if your pet has a food sensitivity or allergy.

    You might also have heard about the potential link between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease, in pets. Research is still ongoing to fully understand this issue. However, it's important to remember that no single ingredient should be blamed without evidence, and the key to a safe and optimal diet is proper formulation and quality control. Always follow the feeding guidelines provided by your pet food manufacturer to prevent nutritional deficiencies in your dog or cat.

    Benefits of Barley in Pet Food

    At ButcherBox Pets, they’ve included barley in their products because it's a healthy grain. This decision was guided by experienced and qualified nutrition scientists and veterinary nutritionists who have spent decades developing pet foods. Barley is an excellent source of fiber, which helps maintain good digestive health and supports healthy stool formation. It also provides essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They made sure not to use too much barley, ensuring that their food still fits the dietary requirements of selective carnivores like dogs.

    The Risks and Realities of Feeding Raw Food to Pets

    I don’t support the criticism of any specific feeding method but emphasize the importance of being well-informed about the risks associated with different pet feeding choices. There is some preliminary evidence suggesting that raw food diets might benefit a pet's immune function, and this feeding method is more common in other countries. However, raw feeding has its risks, both to pets and their human families, if not handled correctly.

    Evaluating the Safety and Benefits of Raw Food Diets

    Raw meat is often contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, and listeria, due to butchering practices and the potential piercing of the gastrointestinal tract during processing. While it's commonly believed that dogs and cats are immune to foodborne illnesses like salmonellosis, this is not true. Pets can and do suffer from food poisoning, including salmonellosis, which can be life-threatening. 

    Although they may be more resistant than humans, they can still become infected or carry bacteria without showing symptoms, posing a risk to anyone in their environment, especially if they defecate where others might come into contact with it. This risk is heightened in homes with immunocompromised individuals, such as babies, the elderly, or those with weakened immune systems due to illness or medical treatment.

    Therefore, if you choose to feed your pet a raw diet, it's crucial to source ingredients carefully, ensure rigorous food safety practices, and implement effective steps to reduce pathogens throughout the food's journey from source to bowl. Unfortunately, many commercial raw pet food companies fall short in this area. Some even claim to have safety measures that are not proven effective, making such measures potentially useless.

    Misunderstandings About Carbohydrates in Pet Foods

    Carbohydrates often get a bad rap in the world of dog and cat nutrition. Despite the negative attention, dogs and cats use carbohydrates effectively for fiber, energy, and other important nutrients. Carbohydrates include a variety of substances such as starches, sugars, and fibers, which come from grains, tubers, legumes, and fruits in pet foods. Many social media influencers criticize carbohydrates without understanding how broad and varied this nutrient group is. For instance, they often overlook that vegetables, a beneficial component for most mammals, are carbohydrates.

    The Role and Necessity of Carbohydrates in Pet Diets

    I believe that while carbohydrates shouldn't make up a large part of a dog or cat's diet, a small to moderate amount—less than 30% of the diet on a metabolic energy basis—is perfectly healthy for pets. To delve a bit into nutritional science—don't worry, I'll keep it simple—dogs and cats don't necessarily need carbohydrates in their diets, but they do require glucose at the cellular level. Research shows that dogs and cats can efficiently use carbohydrates when they're highly digestible. However, the best type and amount of carbohydrates for pets is still debated. It's important to customize the carbohydrate content and type based on the specific needs of your pet and your preferences as an owner, rather than just following popular trends.

    How to Choose the Right Carbohydrates for Your Pet

    There are plenty of good pet food options available that offer various levels of carbohydrates and starches to meet the needs of your pet and your expectations.

    For more insights and tips on choosing the right pet food, you can visit my website and sign up for my email list to receive a set of questions to consider when selecting a pet food company.

    Final Thoughts

    When choosing a diet for your pet, it's essential to look beyond the marketing buzzwords and understand the true nature and source of the ingredients. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a diet that meets the specific needs and health requirements of your beloved companion, ensuring they lead a happy, healthy life. Trustworthy information, transparency from pet food companies like ButcherBox For Pets, and guidance from veterinary professionals are key to making the best nutritional choices for our furry friends.


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