Unveiling the Nutritional Landscape of Pet Food: Understanding Ingredients and Their Roles

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 it comes to choosing the right pet food for your furry friend, understanding the purpose of each ingredient is crucial. Let's dive into the diverse world of pet food ingredients, shedding light on their roles and debunking misconceptions. 

Pet Food Ingredients That Provide Macro- and Micro-Nutrients 

Protein Sources in Pet Food:  

Ingredients like meat, poultry, fish, and plant-based proteins (such as soy or pea protein) are primary sources of protein, which is essential for building and repairing tissues, supporting immune function, and maintaining overall health. This is a critical ingredient for an omnivore/ preferential carnivore like a dog as they have higher protein requirements than humans. 

Essential Fats and Oils to Look for In Pet Food: 

Fats and oils (e.g., chicken fat, fish oil) provide essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6, which support skin and coat health, brain function, hormone production, and overall cellular health. These are the densest source of calories (a little goes a very long way) and overdoing this nutrient can pack on calories fast and result in obesity. 

Don’t Be Scared of Carbohydrates in Pet Food! 

Carbohydrates are complex… bad pun intended.😉 Carbohydrates should not provide more than 30% of the total daily energy intake of your dog, but absolutely can provide value in a healthy diet for dogs. Examples of carbohydrates include grains (rice, wheat, corn), tubers (potatoes), legumes (beans, peas, pulses), and certain vegetables. I tend to recommend carbohydrates be incorporated into my clients’ meal plans as they’re a great source of energy for daily activities and support digestive health. However, it is possible for some pets to have dietary sensitivities or allergies to certain grains, though this is very uncommon; I far more often see allergies related to environmental elements and proteins in dogs and cats. 

I would be remiss without adding another great benefit of Carbohydrates: fiber! Carbohydrates are a great source of fiber, which is critical for gut health! Ingredients like any of those listed above, as well as beet pulp, chicory root, and even chia seeds provide dietary fiber, which aids in digestion, regulates bowel movements, and supports gut health. There are many different classifications and types of fiber that all have unique roles in GI health and maintaining a healthy microbiome.  

What Vitamins and Minerals Should I Look for in Pet Food? 

It’s important to ensure your pets are receiving essential nutrients in their diet. When looking at the ingredient list, I recommend focusing on vitamins A, D, E, B-complex, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Those can be provided through a mix of whole food ingredients and supplements. 

cute dog looking at his food on the counter

The Misunderstood Pet Food Ingredients: 

Natural Flavorings and Palatability Enhancers in Pet Food 

Ingredients such as meat broth, and natural flavors are often added to enhance the taste and palatability of pet food, encouraging pets to eat and enjoy their meals. These are not something to be afraid of any more than you would hesitate to add a delicious sauce to your food. 

The Purpose of Natural Preservatives and Antioxidants in Pet Food: 

Natural (tocopherols, citric acid) and synthetic preservatives are added to pet food to prevent spoilage and maintain freshness. Antioxidants also help to prevent the oxidation of fats and preserve the nutritional quality of the food. Preservatives can get a lot of negative press, but what is even more dangerous to your pet than preservatives are rancid fats. Rancid fats are one of the most well-known carcinogens and using properly tested preservation techniques and ingredients to stabilize these fats is essential to your pet's longevity and health.  

What I like about ButcherBox For Pets treats and food is that they only rely on natural preservatives such as mixed tocopherols and citric acid to prevent rancid fats, rather than relying on artificial preservatives.  

Chicken Meat Meal Isn’t the Villain! 

Did you know that using meat byproducts and meals in a formulation is more akin to the ancestral whole prey model of feeding, than simply using the muscle meat cuts that are “human grade” and available at the grocery store? Confused? Let’s start with this example: If your dog found a carcass in the woods, what part of the carcass do you think they would go for? Hint: It wouldn't be the breast and leg skeletal muscle you and I prefer! It would be the organs first (AKA the byproducts which makeup chicken meat meal). 

Chicken meat meal is made up of the remaining parts of a whole chicken once the breast, legs, and other human-desirable cuts are removed for us humans! That leaves a whole lot of perfectly good, consumable, and healthy chicken. Once the human cuts are taken, the remaining meat from the chickens are removed from the bones, dried down, and used within food. This is why chicken meat meal is such a great source of protein. And no, the feathers, feet, heads, and entrails are not included!

Final Words: 

In the quest for optimal pet nutrition, it's essential to look beyond buzzwords and understand the purpose each ingredient serves. By choosing reputable brands like ButcherBox For Pets, which prioritize whole food ingredients and employ proper preservation techniques, you ensure your pet's diet supports longevity and overall health. Remember, informed choices lead to happy and healthy pets! 

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