Pet food: What's in a name


Does a "chicken" by any other name taste as sweet?

With our bellies still full of Thanksgiving dinner and the Christmas treats starting to flow freely, many of us have food on the brain. How do we enjoy the wonderful morsels surrounding us this time of year, celebrate that we live in an age of prosperity and abundance (historically speaking), and not wreck our bodies with excess pounds, high blood pressure, and diabetes through overconsumption? It's the yearly gastronomic balancing act of indulgence vs. abstinence.

As someone who enjoys cooking and eating but also tries to be health-conscious, I spend considerable time thinking about my own food. I spend less time thinking about pet food, although probably more than the average person. But recently I spent a whole day thinking and learning about pet food during a visit to the Hill's Pet Nutrition Center in Topeka, Kan. The way I obsess about getting the flavors and textures perfect in a lentil stew, our premier nutrition companies obsess about the palatability and health effects of their latest kibble offering. It was impressive.

What really blew me away was the session on decoding pet food label terminology, led by Bill Schoenherr, PhD, principal nutritionist at Hill's. Maybe some of your food-centric clients would be as interested to learn this stuff as I was. The most fascinating part of the discussion, to me, was about the difference between "chicken" and "chicken byproducts" in a pet food ingredient list.

When pet owners (myself included) see "chicken" listed first in an ingredient list, we picture a nice whole chicken breast or drumstick like what we'd eat ourselves. Not so fast. According to the group that standardizes animal feed labeling, "chicken" refers to any combination of chicken flesh, skin, and bone. So when a poultry processor fills orders for food manufacturers, guess who gets the chicken flesh? That's right—people. We need our McNuggets and boneless hot wings. The bones and skin go to the pet food companies. But it's still called "chicken."

What's more, ingredients are listed in order of preprocessed volume from greatest to least. The key word there is "preprocessed." That means a dry food component can start out as mostly water with a little bit of skin and bone and still be listed as "chicken" and placed first on the list. During processing the water will be removed and the volume will shrink markedly, but the consumer doesn't know that.

"Chicken byproducts" consist of the head, neck, and viscera. Sounds a little gross, but think about when a cat catches a mouse. What does it chow down first? The head, neck, and viscera. Internal organs are a rich source of protein that carnivores favor. "Chicken byproduct meal" means the byproducts have been ground up and the moisture removed. So when a food lists "chicken byproduct meal" first or second in the ingredient list, you know that a protein source is a major component of the food.

The bottom line here is that all is not what it seems on a pet food label. So where do pet owners turn for reliable information? Where else than their trustworthy veterinarian?

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