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The term “natural,” as it relates to food labelling is not yet regulated by the FDA, but is defined by AAFCO. This means that in order for a food to call itself “natural” and still be backed by AAFCO, it must be derived only from plant, animal, or mined sources. Every single ingredient in the food has to have been minimally processed and created in a “natural” environment- not in a lab. This means that if a food calls itself natural, pet owners can be sure that no artificial colors, dyes, or flavors were used in the manufacturing process. One of the major benefits of feeding a natural food is that, as mentioned above, they are minimally processed. This means that the natural pet food companies are attempting to keep the ingredients of their formulas as close to their original, found-in-nature, forms as possible. In most cases, this keeps the food more nutritionally sound, because the ingredients have not undergone multiple rounds of chemical processing.

Even though natural foods are without a doubt a vast improvement from foods filled with chemicals, it is important for you to remember that although some ingredients might be natural, it does not automatically mean that you want to feed them to your pet. For example, corn and animal fat can both be considered natural, because they come from sources in nature and are minimally processed. However, we now know that both of those ingredients are under scrutiny from pet owners due to the fact that they may not actually be healthy or nutritionally beneficial for your pet. Natural foods can also still contain filler ingredients, such as glutens and grains, as long as they are not synthetic. Natural foods can be a great choice for your dog or cat, but it is still necessary to check the food label to make sure it meets your standards. The first five ingredients on the food label should still be evaluated, to make sure the food will work for your pet’s specific needs. It is important to remember that “natural” might not mean “perfect.”

There is an identifiable word found on pet food labels that is undoubtedly controlled by standards and strictly monitored. This word is “organic.” The USDA defines organic as something that, “…has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” In order for a pet food company to label their product as organic, at least 95% of all the ingredients in the food must fit organic requirements. A food can claim that it is “made with organic” components if it consists of at least 70% of organic ingredients. There are literally hundreds of prohibited substances that are currently banned from farms that are trying to become certified organic. In order for a manufacturer to get an organic certification, they are inspected, evaluated, and thoroughly tested. For example, the land they utilize for their plants must not have traces of any prohibited substances for three years prior to even starting the process of becoming certified organic. For a pet food company to use the USDA-certified organic seal for their livestock, the manufacturer must meet all of the strict health and welfare standards put in place. They must not use antibiotics or growth hormones, they must feed their livestock USDA 100% organic food, and they must provide their livestock with access to the outdoors. On top of being required to comply with these rules, every year, the company has to have their processes reevaluated by the USDA in order to be re-certified.

Many pet owners can truly appreciate the abundance standards and rules established by the USDA because it helps them remain confident that the food choices they have made for their pets are the right ones. This may seem fairly obvious, and you might have already guessed it, but none of the chicken jerky that is causing the mysterious illnesses in thousands of pets is certified organic.

Organic foods are often slightly more expensive than grocery store foods. However, for many pet owners, it is worth the small increase in price to ensure that their pets are not getting dosed with synthetic ingredients, pesticides, irradiation, and other chemicals.

For nutritional comparison, let us take a look at the labels of a grocery store pet food vs a holistic and organic pet food.

Here are the first five ingredients in a popular grocery store cat food:

  • Poultry By-Product Meal
  • Corn Meal, Corn Gluten Meal
  • Ground Whole Wheat
  • Brewers Rice

These are the first five ingredients on a natural cat food label:

  • Deboned Chicken
  • Chicken Meal
  • Peas
  • Tapioca Starch
  • Turkey Meal

Lastly, here are the first five ingredients on an organic cat food label:

  • Organic Deboned Chicken
  • Poultry Meal
  • Organic Pea Protein
  • Organic Peas
  • Potato Protein

Right off the bat, you will notice that the grocery store pet food has some components that were mentioned on our list of questionable, or “red flag” ingredients. None of these First Five ingredients are meats! It is a mess of by-product meals, corn, gluten, and grains, and it is not hard to tell right away that this is not a high quality food.

Looking at the natural food vs organic food above, you can see that the differences are more subtle. These formulas both contain meat as their main ingredient, and the second ingredient is a meat meal. Chicken and poultry meals are made from meat and skin which is then carefully dried to a lower moisture point than that of meat. It does not include bones, feathers, feet, and other questionable parts. These are good second ingredients that can be found in a pet food formula. However, you will notice that the organic food highlights the fact that each of its ingredients are certified organic. They can say this because each one has been certified and confirmed to come from an organic farm. That means not only were there no synthetic ingredients or toxic chemicals used at the farm where the chicken came from, but there were also no chemical pesticides or herbicides used at the farm where the peas came from.

The natural food formula would not be a bad choice for pet owners by any means- it is still a healthful and nutritionally-sound food. However, the organic option offers just a little more “oomph” because all the ingredients are so heavily regulated and tested to ensure that they possess the most nutritional value for your dog or cat. 

In general, holistic foods are free of “mystery” ingredients, chemicals, and dyes. If you are looking for a food with no chemicals or synthetic ingredients, it is safer to choose a food with a label that reads “natural” because you now know that it will not obtain the AAFCO seal of approval unless the ingredients have met their standards. If you are looking for even fewer doubts, and more regulations, a food that is certified organic has the backing of the USDA’s stringent certification process.

Holistic foods usually contain wholesome meat as the main ingredient, and are formulated provide complete and balanced nutrition for your pet. This usually means that if you choose this food for your pet, you will most likely not need to supply any extra vitamins, minerals, or supplements to your dog or cat- it is all already in the food!