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Dog food 101: What is in your dog's kibble?

Written by Anita Ledtje, Owner/Operator of For Other Living Things, a critter, people and earth friendly pet supply store in Sunnyvale, California.

You can’t beat dry dog food for convenience and cost. It certainly has taken over the market by storm. As many folks with family pups feed dry, it seems like a good place to start when talking about dog food. In this article we’ll touch upon where it came from, its rise to fame and how to pick a good one.

We have sailors and soldiers to thank for our furry friends favorite food. In 1860, James Spratt saw sailors tossing stale biscuits to dogs. Spratt added a few ingredients and formed a company called Spratt's Patent Limited. This started a niche market but prefab dog food really did not come to its own until WWII. Fresh and canned foods were scarce. Our soldiers needed a food they could carry out to the battlefield for our service dogs and one that would hold up without refrigeration. From there, large food manufacturers saw the burgeoning pet food industry as a good repository for the unusable leftovers (by-products) of their human food industries. These foods were baked, greasy and a little too quick to mold.

The first extruded foods came along in 1956. This resolved the greasy mold problem. Most of the dry foods on the market today are extruded. The extruders are modified breakfast cereal machines. However, these machines have their own requirements in order to work properly. They tend to get gummed up if there is anywhere close to 50% meat in the recipe. In order to keep the machines running, a binder must be added. This is very commonly wheat, corn or soy. These binders can sometimes cause their own problems like allergies and diabetes. Now-a-days you can find “grain free” dry foods. These “grain free” foods still need to contain a binder. Alternative binders can be ingredients like oatmeal, potato, tapioca, beans, or pea fiber. Note that there is no nutritional requirement for the binder on the part of the animal eating the food. You can read more about the history of pet food here.

As well as by-products and binders we can talk about food grade (people could eat them) vs feed grade (unfit for human consumption) ingredients. We can toss in chemical preservatives and artificial colors. Dry pet food can get fairly ugly. This can cause huge poops in the back yard, flatulence, oily or dry coat, excess shedding, rotten teeth and breath, kidney damage, diabetes, irritable bowel disease (IBD), allergies and a fearful, disagreeable or hyperactive pet.

Let’s look at two examples. (Keep in mind that the ingredients are listed by weight.)

Example 1:

Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), rice flour, beef, soy flour, water, meat and bone meal, propylene glycol, sugar, tricalcium phosphate, phosphoric acid, salt, animal digest, potassium chloride, sorbic acid (a preservative), dried peas, dried carrots, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, Red 40, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, niacin, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Vitamin A supplement, Blue 2, calcium carbonate, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, brewers dried yeast, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate, folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite. This is Beneful Original dog food. The ingredients read a lot like a granola bar. Keep in mind that a dogs’ ability to digest certain things, like grain, does not exist. Grain is the first ingredient in the example above. Chicken by-product meal, (the ingredient 2) is a part of an animal that a human would not eat. Meal removes moisture from whole meat for processing and is not necessarily a bad thing. One does have to wonder, however, about the by-product part of that statement. Will your dog get much protein from beaks, feet and feathers? They are possible byproducts. Reading on; Whole wheat flour (more grain). The “animal fat” part is flavor (after processing and being mostly made of things the dog would not normally eat, they have to make it tasty). Since we’re talking about animal fat, what animal does the animal fat come from? (Not saying? Don’t know? Does it change from batch to batch?) Moving further down the list… here’s a good one: propylene glycol. Propylene glycol has a chemical structure very similar to anti freeze. It is poisonous to cats and illegal to put in their food. It has not been proven to be dangerous to dogs yet, so it is still allowed. This is known as “GRS” or Generally Regarded as Safe. Right after that is sugar… Seriously? Why? Most of what’s left is the vitamin packet except for the artificial coloring… Dogs don’t see colors like we do. I wonder if they (the dogs) really care what color the food is.

Example 2:

Lamb, lamb meal, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, canola oil, pea protein, roasted lamb, tomato pomace, natural flavor, salt, choline chloride, mixed tocopherols (a preservative), dried chicory root, taurine, tomatoes, blueberries, raspberries, yucca schidigera extract, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus casei fermentation product, dried Lactobacillus plantarum fermentation product, dried Trichoderma longibrachiatum fermentation extract, vitamin E supplement, iron proteinate, zinc proteinate, copper proteinate, ferrous sulfate, zinc sulfate, copper sulfate, potassium iodide, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), manganese proteinate, manganous oxide, ascorbic acid, vitamin A supplement, biotin, niacin, calcium pantothenate, manganese sulfate, sodium selenite, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), vitamin B12 supplement, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin D supplement, folic acid. This is Taste of the Wild Sierra Mountain Formula. So let’s follow this ingredient panel: Meat, meat, binders, more meat, some very nutritious fruits and veggies, vitamins, done. Of the two examples, the second is preferable. The manufacturer has removed a lot of potentially problematic ingredients and still managed to produce a very palatable food. When choosing a dry food for your four footed friend, read the label and adhere to a few simple rules. This can get you a vastly superior product. These two products are formulated for dogs but if you have a cat you should adhere to the same rules for them as well. Here they are:

  1. With few exceptions, the first ingredient should be meat or meat meal. A named meat. Be wary of words like meat or poultry. You want to see words like beef, lamb, chicken, etc.

  2. The first or second ingredient can be a meal like chicken meal. That’s the meat with the water removed. If the first ingredient is a whole meat than, after processing, its correct position by weight on the ingredients panel would be about 3 positions to the right. Water is heavy and needs to be removed for extruding.

  3. You should not see grains in the second, third and fourth positions because then, by weight, the product could be mostly grain.

  4. It should not contain grain fractions (wheat middlings, peanut hulls, etc), no artificial colors or flavors and no chemical preservatives. If it contains words like BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin or propylene glycol don’t buy it.

Fortunately, we are becoming an educated public, demanding food for our companions that will give them the best shot at a long and comfortable life with as few vet bills as possible. The pet food industry is responding to our demands for quality dog food. The best place to start when selecting a new food, or checking out the food we’ve been feeding, is right on the package. READ YOUR INGREDIENTS!

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