How Marketing Trends Drive Changes in Dog Food Labeling

February 2019 Issue

Increasingly, fads and trends are influencing the dog food makers’ formulations and marketing – and that’s not generally a good thing.

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

Twenty-plus years ago, there were some people who gave WDJ credit for helping push the pet-food industry into the modern era, by speaking out against the use of artifical preservatives, colors, and flavors and highly processed waste products from the human-food industry. Today, we have heard hints that we are among those who should be blamed for a dog-food formulation trend that may have killed dogs: certain grain-free diets that have been implicated in a spike of cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. This is in spite of the fact that we have never promoted grain-free diets for any dogs save those individuals who are allergic to or intolerant of grains.

I honestly don’t think that we’ve earned either distinction. In my view, it’s the pet-food company marketing departments that are largely responsible for many beneficial and deleterious developments in the pet food industry in the past 20 years. Marketing claims have run completely amok! And in some cases, their success has been detrimental to our dogs. But let’s trace the history of this thing. There are some good lessons to be learned here if you want to feed your dog products that will promote rather than impair his health.

dog food labels

The verbiage and imagery on dog food labels has gotten ridiculous. We’d like to think that people don’t pay any attention to most of this nonsense, but all indications are that they do!

A Little Pet Food History

When we first contacted pet food companies to ask questions about their formulations and manufacturing, some 22 years ago, we were more or less brushed off. Most manufacturers were tight-lipped and frankly patronizing in response to nearly any inquiry from consumers or consumer-oriented journalists. The prevailing attitude at that time was that scientists had figured out what was best for dogs, and that even though their ingredients lists didn’t sound very appealing and the manufacturing locations and ingredient sources were a secret, grownups were in charge and dog owners shouldn’t worry about what was going on behind the curtain.

It’s important to remember that the pet-food industry was founded on the utilization of waste products from the industrial human-food manufacturing industry.

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

Also important: In the early days of the pet-food industry, most of the pet-food companies really did have actual scientists, people with advanced degrees in animal nutrition, working to transform those byproducts of the human-food industry into foods that would sustain our pets’ lives.

But in the late 1990s, the processed human-food industry was changing rapidly, and the pet-food industry was close behind. Increasingly, people wanted to know exactly what was in their food (and their pets’ food), why it was included, and where the ingredients came from.

We were in total support of the pursuit of this knowledge. We celebrated and promoted companies that were transparent about their ingredients and manufacturing.

dog food labels

This claim is impressive only in the context of the product’s other protein sources and their position on the ingredients list. Also, what is the alternative to “real” chicken? We’re curious how this phrase got so ubiquitous on dog food labels.

As one might expect, the companies that were most transparent and willing to share information about their products tended to use high-end ingredients and produce high-end foods – what started to be referred to variously as “natural/holistic” or “super premium” foods. This makes sense; companies that used raw ingredients procured from the same raw-ingredient sources of human food (not byproducts) and manufactured the products in facilities with AIB and ISO 9001 certifications had absolutely nothing to hide.

Changes in Dog Food Marketing Trends

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

We weren’t the only fans of these products; consumers (and their dogs, presumably) responded very positively to these formulas and their makers. In fact, the fastest growth in the pet food industry over the past 20 years has been consistently found in the high-cost, high-quality segment of the market.

Old-guard pet-food makers who were originally quite critical of the high-end products have since learned that there is no top to the market for dog foods that meet – or even exceed – the level of quality of foods that humans buy for themselves. To keep from getting left behind, and to participate in the hottest sector of the market, pretty much every pet food maker has rolled out at least a few products formulated to compete in the “super-premium” market niche.

I will admit that we made a little fun of some of the early efforts made by the old-guard industrial-waste pet-food makers to emulate the new wave of super-premium/natural/holistic foods. Truly “holistic” food formulation consists of more than adding blueberries to the food and telling the marketing folks to go to town with it. But that’s what quite a few of them did – and it seemed to work. Never mind that in many cases the products were largely the same as ever; everyone loves blueberries!

What was that old line? “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

By the 2010s, the marketing of pet foods had completely transformed from “We’re veterinarians (alternately, professional breeders of show dogs); trust us to know what’s good for your dog!” to “Doesn’t this look and sound oh-so delicious and healthy?”

Marketing Tricks in Dog Food Products

Dog owners shouldn’t feel singled out; the marketing of human foods relies very heavily on consumer trends and fads. And just about every human-food trend or fad has found its way into pet food and pet-food marketing, from apples to zucchini.

Whereas pet-food companies used to rely on scientific research on animal nutrition and animal feeding trials, increasingly, they have simply started to mimic trendy human-food trends. The fads that began as an annoying (to the old-school pet-food companies) trickle have become tidal waves that seem to have swept every pet-food maker company onto the shores of Fad Food Island.

What do we mean? Here is a partial list:

Fresh Meat First

The first big thing that came along in the super-premium dog-food market was the trend of formulating foods with fresh (or frozen) whole, named meats at the top of ingredients lists – something we have promoted from our first food review. We think it’s a good thing when it’s done right; it isn’t always done right.

What’s “right”? We’ve explained this before at greater length, but in brief, because fresh meat is high in moisture, it’s lower in total protein (by weight) than a comparable amount (by weight) of meat meal. Fresh or frozen meats contain as much as 65 to 75 percent water and only 15 to 25 percent protein. In contrast, animal protein meals contain only about 10 percent moisture and as much as 65 percent protein.

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

Ingredients lists are ordered by the weight of the ingredients included in the formula, and while fresh meat is heavy, it can’t contribute as much total protein as a dog food needs; so when it appears first on an ingredients list, the food will have another protein source – and, depending on its position on the ingredients list, this secondary source of protein may actually provide the majority of the protein in the food.

If fresh meat appears first on an ingredients list, we like to see the secondary protein source appear second (no lower than third) on the ingredients list, and we’d like it to be another animal-protein source (as opposed to a plant-sourced protein). And the animal-protein source that packs the most potent protein punch in terms of the amino acids that are essential in a dog’s diet are animal-protein meals. That’s right: Rendered meat – a highly processed ingredient to be sure, but an ingredient with the longest history and research studies to prove that dogs find it palatable, digestible, and nutritious.

dog food labels

Feed my dog a sprig of parsley? Any time. Buy a food with this on the label? Sheesh! No.

Companies who eschew the use of any meat meals (such as Halo and Open Farm) cite different reasons for their choices. Halo offers more than one rationale, chief among them that fresh meats are more digestible than comparable meat meals (though this is highly disputable; see Linda Case’s article in the January 2018 issue of Whole Dog Journal). Note that Halo also includes dried egg product as a protein source in its dry dog foods (third on the ingredients list), as well as several plant-based protein sources.

Open Farm says it avoids the use of meat and poultry meals in order to ensure full traceability, since it’s harder to reliably trace the source of all the meat that goes into a rendered meat meal. Note that it uses fish meals and some plant-based protein sources as secondary protein sources.

We have seen lots of evidence pointing to the fact that dogs find foods that have a relatively high inclusion of fresh meats to be particularly palatable. We also believe instinctively, without the benefit of canine nutritional research studies that back this up, that a relatively high inclusion of any less-processed animal protein sources in a highly processed food cannot help but improve the product’s vitality – if only in terms of proteins and enzymes that are less altered or damaged by heat.

The record sales growth of foods formulated with “real meat first” and other high inclusions of meat (such as those that show several meat and meat meals in the first several spots on the ingredients list) would seem to suggest that dogs find these foods palatable and that their owners find them to be beneficial – or we’ve all just been taken in by the marketing.

“Healthy” Additives That Sound Really Good

Now, we know that dogs have been living with humans and eating what we eat for thousands of years. And we know that they are omnivores whose bodies have amino acid, fat, and mineral requirements that are most efficiently and optimally met by the consumption of other animals – but are beautifully able to make use of just about anything digestible, whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral.

But it’s a stretch to assume that any food ingredient that humans enjoy or reap some benefit from is going to benefit our dogs. Nonetheless, pet-food companies that are looking to distinguish their products in some way have increasingly embraced the practice of including anything that has made human nutrition headlines: berries, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouts, herbs of all kinds, garlic, various oils (sunflower, olive, coconut, avocado, etc.), and nutraceuticals – if you’ve heard of it, some pet-food company has added it to their products.

dog food labels

Grain free does not equate to better-for-dogs!

Any of those ingredients may offer health benefits for dogs. But research is required to prove the benefit and to find the effective dosage and form of delivery that provides the benefit. Unless the ingredient is included in a product in the form and amount proven to be beneficial, its inclusion should be considered pure marketing.

As just one example: Some foods boast that they contain glucosamine, which has been proven to produce an anti-inflammatory effect when delivered in relatively high doses. Some food labels don’t bother to include the amount of glucosamine in the food, however; others include the amount in the guaranteed analysis, but this “dosage” is usually minimal when compared to the therapeutic amounts that research has shown to be effective.

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

The “No” Trend in Dog Food Marketing

Perhaps the most prevalent pet-food fad of the past 20 years was what we call the trend of “No.” As owners became aware that dogs liked and were healthier when fed foods that contained more meat and less corn, wheat, and soy, the “No corn, wheat, or soy” messages on the labels got bigger and more ubiquitous. The “No” trend had begun.

The next most popular “No” claim is well accepted as being healthful: “No artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.” Some of today’s “No” claims have advanced into more controversial territory, such as “No GMO ingredients” and “No fillers” (a great-sounding but completely undefined term).

Other “No” claims have marched well past the point of potentially educating consumers into highly confusing territory. Today, it’s easy to find labels that proclaim their lack of perfectly healthy ingredients – such as chicken and beef – that are found in countless other foods! It’s possible that the companies are simply trying to identify alternatives to help owners of dogs who are allergic to some of the most common pet-food ingredients, but it causes lots of confusion for the average buyer of dog food. “What did I miss? Is chicken bad, now?”

dog food ingredients list

Minding your peas: We have no explanation for the sudden appearance of peas in every possible form, in the majority of grain-free foods, and many foods that contain grain, too.

Grain-Free and Gluten-Free Dog Food; and Dog Food Full of Peas?

When the first grain-free dry dog foods appeared on the market, we were ecstatic – to be precise, ecstatic for dogs who are allergic to or intolerant of grains. To repeat something I said earlier: We have never suggested that grain-free foods were better for all dogs, or just any dogs. They are a valuable resource for dogs who react badly to grains – that’s as far as we have ever gone.

dog food ingredients list

Peas, peas, peas

We’re not sure, though, how this particular trend took off like wildfire. I complained in a WDJ blog post on March 2, 2017 that it has gotten difficult to find products that meet WDJ’s basic dry dog food selection criteria and that do contain grain. Many pet food companies that we have appreciated for years now offer only grain-free foods – and in our opinion, that’s just nuts. There are not that many dogs in the world who are allergic to or intolerant of grain!

Here’s the basis of my misgivings about grain-free dry dog foods being fed as a daily diet to dogs who are not allergic to or intolerant of grains: The grains in these foods have been replaced with carbohydrate sources (including peas, lentils, chickpeas, and other “pulses” or legume seeds, as well as potatoes and sweet potatoes) that haven’t been studied as major ingredients in canine diets for very long. In contrast, carbohydrate sources such as rice, barley, and even the much-maligned “corn, wheat, and soy” have a long history in both dog food research and use in dog food.

dog food ingredients list

So, there is a record number of foods that contain these grain-alternatives on the market, a relatively short history of feeding these grain-alternatives to dogs, and few companies conducting ever-fewer AAFCO-approved feeding trials of their products in order to secure a “complete and balanced” nutritional claim . . . This may have created the perfect storm that created the spike in cases of canine DCM that the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) described in its July 2018 communication, “FDA Investigating Potential Connection Between Diet and Cases of Canine Heart Disease.”

The communication discussed the fact that veterinary cadiologists had reported to the FDA that they had seen a jump in the number of cases of DCM in dogs and that many of the dogs lacked a breed-related predisposition for DCM. In addition, most of the dogs had been fed diets that contained potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other “pulses” (seeds of legumes) – and their protein, starch, and fiber derivatives – early in the ingredient list. Also, the affected dogs were fed these diets as their primary source of nutrition for time periods ranging from months to years.

dog food ingredients list

Pea overload – no health benefits.

Important to note: It’s well-known that canine DCM can be induced by diets that are deficient in the amino acids that dogs use to produce their own supply of taurine: cysteine and methionine. However, not all the dogs in the cases of DCM being investigated by the FDA have been found to have deficient levels of taurine.

Also important: The FDA hasn’t implicated all grain-free dog foods in this rash of DCM cases; its investigations have narrowed down the culprits to the products that use “peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients” – with the phrase “main ingredient” being defined here as something that appears “early in the ingredient list.”

Further, the FDA has clarified that there are quite a number of foods that are not grain-free that contain “peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, has been the biggest shock of our reviews of pet-food labels this year. All of a sudden, it seems, these ingredients are absolutely everywhere. Who planted all these darn peas? What is going on here?

We’d like to blame overzealous marketing of grain-free diets for all of this, or overuse of these suddenly omnipresent peas, but it’s clearly more complex than just that. Mark this crime as unsolved and be alert if you have fed your dog a diet that meets the description of those implicated by the FDA, and/or if your dog shows any signs of DCM:

  • Lethargy, decreased energy
  • A persistent cough
  • Difficulty breathing, rapid or excessive breathing, or seeming shortness of breath
  • Episodes of collapse
  • Anorexia (chronic loss of appetite)

dog food ingredients list

What’s Important on a Dog Food Label?

When it comes to selecting foods for your canine companion, we beg you to pay little attention to the graphics and splashy text on the labels; the most important information on the product label tends to be in small type on either the back, bottom, or hard-to-see side panels of the bags. You will probably need glasses, a magnifying glass, or our favorite label-reading tool, the mobile phone (use the camera and zoom in! works great!).

The three most important bits of information on the label are:

  1. the list of ingredients
  2. the guaranteed analysis
  3. the nutritional adequacy statement (a.k.a. the AAFCO statement)

We explain what to look for – and what to look out for – in each of those sections on this page.

whole dog journal dcm

Linda Case, an animal nutrition expert, author, dog trainer, and frequent contributor to WDJ, wrote about taurine-deficient DCM in the September 2018 issue of WDJ.

And if you are going to buy a food for your dog on the strength of some attribute that you’ve heard about or seen advertised somewhere – whether in a magazine, on TV, at a dog show, on a website, in a pet supply store, or on the product label itself – make sure you know what, exactly, you want the attribute to do for your dog. Then watch your dog! If the product performs as you wish – terrific! You can add that food to the list of foods you rotate among for feeding your dog throughout the year.

whole dog journal 2019 dry dog food list

You do rotate foods, don’t you? If not, you should. Switching foods ensures that your dog receives varying levels of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients – and protects him from nutrient excesses, deficiencies, or imbalances that might be found in any particular food brand or variety.

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